The Crash Injury Risk to Rear Seated Passenger Vehicle Occupants

TR Number
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Virginia Tech

Historically, rear seat occupants have been at a lower risk of serious injury and fatality in motor vehicle crashes than their front seat counterparts. However, many passive safety advancements that have occurred over the past few decades such as advanced airbag and seatbelt technology primarily benefit occupants of the front seat. Indeed, safety for front seat occupants has improved drastically in the 21st century, but has it improved so much that the front seat is now safer than the rear? Today, rear-seated occupants account for 10% of all passenger vehicle fatalities. In this era focused on achieving zero traffic deaths, the safety of rear-seated occupants must be further addressed.

This dissertation analyzed U.S. national crash data to quantify the risk of injury and fatality to rear-seated passenger vehicle occupants while accounting for the influence of associated crash, vehicle, and occupant characteristics such as crash severity, vehicle model year, and occupant age/sex. In rear impacts, the risk of moderate-to-fatal injury was greater for rear-seated occupants than their front-seated counterparts. In high-severity rear impact crashes, catastrophic occupant compartment collapse can occur and carries with it a great fatality risk. In frontal impacts, there is evidence that the rear versus front seat relative risk of fatality has been increasing in vehicle model years 2007 and newer. Rear-seated occupants often sustained serious thoracic, abdomen, and/or head injuries that are generally related to seatbelt use. Seatbelt pretensioners and load limiters – commonplace technology in the front seating positions – aim to mitigate these types of injuries but are rarely provided as standard safety equipment in the rear seats of vehicles today. Finally, in side impacts, injury and fatality risks to rear- and front-seated occupants are more similar than in the other crash modes studied, though disparities in protection remain, especially in near-side vehicle-to-vehicle crashes. Finally, this work projects great injury reduction benefits if a rear seat belt reminder system were to be widely implemented in the U.S. vehicle fleet.

This dissertation presents a comprehensive investigation of the factors that contribute to rear-seated occupant injury and/or fatality through retrospective studies on rear, front, and side impacts. The overall goal of this dissertation is to better quantify the current risk of injury to rear-seated occupants under a variety of crash conditions, compare this to the current risk to front-seated occupants, and, when possible, identify how exactly injuries are occurring and ways in which they may be prevented in the future. The findings can benefit automakers who seek to improve the effectiveness of rear seat safety systems as well as regulatory agencies seeking to improve was vehicle tests targeting rear seat passenger vehicle safety.

rear seat occupant, passenger vehicle crash, crash injury risk