Two women riding in the backseat of a car.

Over several decades, crash tests and tougher regulations have focused on improving front-seat safety. Making backseat passengers safer? Not so much.

For years, automakers have designed safety systems so that their vehicles pass specific crash tests that have focused on the front seat, where most people ride and most injuries and fatalities occur. Automakers want to grab top scores on those tests, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance industry-funded group. As a result, safety benefits have skewed in favor of front-seat passengers.

But an average of 1,799 rear-seat passengers died per year in crashes from 2009 through 2016, or about 12.5 percent of the total. That compares with an average of 19,846 per year for front-seat drivers and passengers. “Perhaps it’s time to turn attention to the rear seats to make similar safety strides,” says Jennifer Stockburger, director of operations at CR’s Auto Test Center.

More on Car Safety

Prodded by demand, federal mandates, and the insurance industry, automakers have introduced lifesaving innovations, including better seat belts, improved interior padding, laminated windshields, and airbags throughout the cabin. According to a 2012 NHTSA estimate, 613,501 lives have been saved because of safety advances. The number is even higher today.

When auto-safety regulation started in earnest in the 1960s, the front seat was a logical place to focus. In older cars, those occupants could be hurt in a lot of different ways: impaled by the steering wheel, injured when their head hit hard interior surfaces, or ejected through the windshield.

Now with Lyft and Uber—and ride-sharing in general—more passengers are sitting in the back, forcing experts to rethink some safety priorities. Some basic technologies aren’t usually found in the rear, such as airbags, seat-belt pretensioners, load limiters, and head restraints large enough to help adults, Stockburger says. (See “Anatomy of the Modern Seat Belt.”)

American motorists also might be underestimating the need to wear belts in the backseat. A 2017 study of taxi riders in Las Vegas and San Francisco found that only about one-quarter buckled up.

Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers in Washington, D.C., the industry’s largest trade group, says some automakers are working on boosting backseat safety. He says at least two companies offer inflatable shoulder belts, and others are developing pretensioners, load limiters, and even airbags that activate from a lap belt.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the May 2019 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.