Rear_Seat_belt 001

I was a passenger in a car the other day with three of my friends. I got in the back, and very matter-of-factly, reached for the seat belt, pulled it across my chest, slid it into the buckle and sat back.

Hardly a couple of seconds had passed before I was aware of an incredulous stare burning in my direction. My back seat companion was looking at me; mouth agape, squint-eyed and an inquisitive frown on his face, as if I’d suddenly sprouted a Pinocchio nose and a third eye.

“Seriously?” he inquired, frowning harder as if to study more thoroughly this being from outer space. Instantly becoming self-aware, I hurriedly glanced about my person, wondering what I’d done that was so weird as to earn such a reaction. A mocking smile slowly formed on his lips.

“Back seat you still want to wear seat belt ah?” he bellowed condescendingly, saving me from my brief confusion, but not, perhaps, from possible death or serious injury.

It was my turn to stare at him now. You know how sometimes you have so much to say, you don’t bother saying it at all? A thousand rebuttals were loading themselves into a gun in my head, begging to be fired at him all at once, but I simply said “Yes,” made a mental note to sign my meek self up for speak-your-mind classes, and turned away to look out the window.

Next to our car was a middle-aged woman in a Proton Saga with three children, two of which were having a plastic-sword fight in the back and one standing on the front seat, her precious little head a mere several cringe-worthy inches away from the windscreen.

Rear_Seat_belt 002

Happens at the other end of the scale too, as it turns out. A few days later I pulled up alongside a Porsche Cayenne at the lights, and while I couldn’t see the driver thanks to its tinted windows, I saw very clearly the heads of two children sticking out of the open sunroof, laughing merrily and enjoying the view.

Let’s go back for a moment to the early days of those stupid pully, strappy things. Some people thought a pull-and-click too much of a hassle. Some quoted freedom as a fundamental right, and as such, they didn’t want to be strapped to their seats like the condemned to the electric chair.

Some opined that in an emergency, you could exit the car more quickly if you were belt-free. Some found the wearing uncomfortable. Some even believed, goodness gracious, that the use of restraints demonstrated distrust in the driver’s competence, and could be taken as an insult!

And what happened? Today many drivers and front seat passengers get into their cars and fasten their belts, almost without even being conscious of it. Unlike the generation before them, they don’t belt up because they fear a fine, or only when there’s a policeman in sight – they belt up because they’ve always done it, and are used to it. The answer to the question at the start of the paragraph: it eventually gained acceptance and became second nature.

It’s safe to say that most of us Malaysians (in the urban areas at least) are pretty good with front seat belts. Considerably fewer, however, are as conscientious in the back, and even fewer still secure their children in child seats – let’s not even go there, or this column would never end.

Rear_Seat_belt 003

You may sit and wonder what happened to the rear seat belt law, but the fact of the matter is this – law or no law, fine or no fine, we should be belting up as long as we are travelling in a vehicle. Because we value our lives.

I don’t need to rattle off seat belt-related road death statistics to frighten you, or tell you why the back isn’t any safer than the front, because you’ve heard it all before.

It’s saddening enough to see lower-income families, especially in more rural and remote parts, travelling with many children in a car unrestrained – they have not had as much exposure to the importance of vehicle occupant safety. They couldn’t afford another car, or a bigger car, or child seats – even if they recognised the need for them.

But what really grinds my gears are those of us who can well afford safety and yet take it so lightly. They could be driving cars filled to bursting with airbags, ABS, traction control, crumple zones and the latest in active electronic safety systems which some of the best European engineers have slaved for years to develop, all in the name of saving lives. And then they go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like “Back seat you still want to wear seat belt ah?”

Maybe one day, just like we did with their counterparts up front, we’ll all get used to wearing rear seat belts. It might make little difference to drivers’ attitudes or the number of accidents on the road. It might make a bigger difference to the number of people killed or seriously injured in cars every year.

But it will make all the difference in the world to the life it has saved.