What’s the safest place to sit in a car? Believe it or not, it’s the place where no one wants to sit. It’s that middle seat in the back. Growing up, we called it “the hump” and the shortest person was always forced to sit there, squished on either side by other passengers. When you sit there in the middle, you don’t have the window next to you, or arm rests. But it seems that backseat middle position is the safest place to sit, even when the car isn’t loaded with other passengers, and you have no other alternative.
The middle backseat was deemed the safest place to sit as a result of a study performed by University of Buffalo researchers. The research team looked at the data on how many fatalities occurred during car crashes in the U.S. over a period of four years. Not surprisingly, passengers sitting anywhere in the backseat were a lot safer than those sitting up front. How much safer?
Safest Place to Sit? The “Hump.”
The UB researchers found that passengers who sit in the backseat of the car are 59 percent to 86 percent safer than those sitting up front. Now here’s the kicker: that “unfortunate” short person forced to sit on “the hump”—AKA the middle back seat—is 25 percent safer than the occupants on either side of them. That’s a pretty significant figure to take in.
Of course, it’s not just where you sit in the backseat, but an entire cavalcade of factors that make the side seat a much more dangerous place to sit. Lead author of the UB study, Dietrich Jehle, M.D., associate professor of emergency medicine at that institution, explains. “After controlling for factors such as restraint use, vehicle type, vehicle weight, occupant age, weather and light conditions, air-bag deployment, drug results and fatalities per crash, the rear middle seat is still 16 percent safer than any other seat in the vehicle” said Jehle.
Jehle and colleagues looked at two sets of fatal crash data. First they examined the data from car crashes where there were only passengers in the front seat and a single passenger in the middle backseat. All told, crashes in this class involved 27,098 passengers. The researchers compared the survival rates for front-seat versus backseat passengers.
The second set of data looked at survival rates for backseat occupants only, in crashes where there was at least a single fatality. The middle seat group had 5,707 occupants, while those sitting on either side numbered 27,611 occupants for a total of 33,318 backseat passengers. Here, the research team looked at the fatality rate for rear middle seat occupants, as opposed to those sitting on the side, window seat positions.
Middle Backseat Passengers are Younger
Among the interesting statistics that came out of this study were the ages of the rear seat passengers. The average age of the backseat passengers was 20 years. The age of the middle backseat passengers was on average, 15.4 years. Perhaps the youngest of the bunch is the one who usually gets consigned to this “undesirable” seat, which turns out to be the safest.
Wearing or not wearing a seatbelt was, of course, a major factor in the car crash fatalities studied. Almost half of the backseat passengers—46.9 percent—were not wearing seatbelts. Of these passengers 34.6 percent had fatal injuries. The seatbelt wearers, on the other hand, had a fatality rate of only 14.9 percent. Backseat passengers who wore seatbelts were 2.4-3.2 times more likely to survive a crash than those who failed to buckle up.
Why is the rear middle seat so much safer? Jehle says it’s all about the crush zone. The crush zone of a car is designed to collapse and absorb some of the impact from a crash. The middle backseat crush zone is larger than that of the seats on either side. “In addition, in rollover crashes there is potentially less rotational force exerted on the middle seat passenger than on those in the window seats,” said Jehle.
Seatbelt Use is More Important
“This study reinforces the importance of using seat belts in the back seat, as well as demonstrating that the rear middle seat is the safest,” stated Jehle. “Legislation to require rear-seat belt use by all passengers should be strongly supported.”
So there you have it: everyone thinks that sitting directly behind the driver is the safest place to sit in car, but it’s not. It’s that darned middle seat where no one wants to sit. Maybe we shouldn’t be letting this information out—people could end up fighting to sit there on the hump (in cars that still have this feature). Still, as we see from the UB study, far more important to keeping safe is not where you sit in the car, but whether you’re wearing a seatbelt.