Back-seat passengers will have to buckle up just like those up front when a new seat-belt law takes effect on June 1, although penalties will only be handed out for violations on expressways.

Drivers found to be carrying passengers not wearing seat belts will have a penalty point added to their record. Six points results in suspension of their license, while 15 points gets it revoked.

Not everyone is bound by the new rule. Those exempted include pregnant women and people with disabilities that make it difficult for them to fasten the belts.

Currently, the law requires drivers and front-seat passengers to wear seat belts, with the driver given a one-point penalty for violations either on expressways or on regular roads. Current law only urges drivers to try to have those in back buckle up.

There are good reasons to tighten the rules, said National Police Agency official Akihisa Miyauchi. The accident fatality rate for back-seat passengers not wearing seat belts is about four times higher than for those wearing the belts, the NPA said.

Of the 1,001 people not wearing seat belts killed in traffic accidents in 2007, 168 were in the back seat, the NPA said.

Police also note that back-seat passengers not wearing seat belts pose a greater risk to people in the front. In fact, tests with dummies show that front-seat passengers are 50 times more likely to suffer a serious head injury by being struck from behind if a passenger in back isn’t wearing a seat belt, according to the NPA.

Miyauchi reckoned that most back-seat passengers do not wear seat belts.

On regular roads, 95 percent of drivers and 86 percent of front-seat passengers were found to be wearing belts, according to a survey conducted last year by the NPA and the Japan Automobile Federation. The same was true of only about 8 percent of those in back. The NPA expects this figure to rise when the new law takes effect, Miyauchi says.

Some countries, including Canada and Portugal, as well as several U.S. states legally require back-seat passengers to wear seat belts, and impose fines or penalty points for violations.

In Japan, penalties will be limited to violators on expressways, because a Cabinet Office survey shows a lack of public support for penalizing people for not buckling up on surface roads, Miyauchi said.

According to a 2006 survey, about 30 percent of 1,700 respondents said the penalties should be imposed only for violations on expressways, while only 24 percent supported penalties for violations on both expressways and regular roads.

Miyauchi stressed that new traffic rules should be imposed only with public support, and that the NPA would judge the response to the latest law revision to determine whether to broaden the penalties to violations on regular roads.

Motor vehicle journalist Goro Okazaki said he welcomes the stricter law. “Legal obligation is certainly necessary” for back-seat passengers to buckle up because otherwise they would not, he noted.

Okazaki noted that a Mercedes-Benz brochure points out that even the world’s best vehicle safety technology is useless if passengers don’t buckle up.

Okazaki agrees that the public must first be won over to the idea before penalties are imposed on back-seat passengers not wearing seat belts on regular roads. He said it will be particularly difficult for taxi drivers to insist that their customers riding in back wear belts, he said.

However, Okazaki warned that the risk to passengers from not wearing seat belts will be the same on regular roads as on expressways.

He suggested that penalties be imposed on violators on regular roads as well within a year or so after the latest law revision takes effect. Otherwise, people might come to think that they simply do not need to wear seat belts off the expressways.

Wearing seat belts, no matter where you are, “does not require so much effort,” he said.

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