Few would disagree that today’s cars are safer than cars built in 1967. Still, it is astonishing to discover that a key safety standard applied to virtually every vehicle on America’s roads has not been updated in all that time. The feature is seatback strength, and, as a recent article in The Oregonian’s business section outlines, the standard by which the government assesses it has not changed in 53 years.
Seatback strength is something few car buyers think about. But even if they did, fewer still are in any position to assess it. Auto manufacturers assure customers that car seats meet or exceed all federal safety requirements, without adding that the requirements themselves are so out of date “that a lawn chair could pass it” according to the consumer advocacy organization FairWarning, which authored The Oregonian article.
The organization says engineers who have studied the issue regard the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) standards for car seats as “laughably weak… In actual rear-end collisions, the seat pushing forward against the weight of a person in the front seat can cause the seat to collapse, sometimes throwing the driver or passenger head-first into the back or out of the rear window, and also endangering anyone in the back seat.”
According to FairWarning and other consumer-focused groups that study the issue, such as Massachusetts-based Safety Research & Strategies, existing seat belt standards are designed mainly to protect the driver and front-seat passengers during front or side collisions. When a car is rear-ended, however, the seat itself becomes the main restraining device. If that seat is not strong enough to absorb the impact it buckles. The collapsing seat can crush anyone in the back. The problem is especially acute when the people in the back are children.
“An analysis from 2016 calculated that 898 children under the age of 12 died in rear-impact crashes from 1990 to 2014. But there is no way to know how many of these children died due to seat failures,” according to The Oregonian’s article, because the way in which crash data is collected by law enforcement, insurers and the car industry does not single out seatback failure as a cause of death or injury. The article details a number of ongoing lawsuits against Ford in which seatback failure is alleged to be the cause of death for children riding in the back seat or people in the front of the vehicle thrown through the back by a rear-end collision, though it is careful to note that the problem is industry-wide.
So what is to be done? To start, FairWarning says the NHTSA “should be telling parents to put a child behind the unoccupied passenger seat, or behind the lightest person in the front, to reduce the risk of injury.” This will not fix the problem of injuries to children from collapsing front seats, but until government and the auto industry improve their conduct it is at least a small and easy-to-take precaution.
As an Oregon and Washington attorney who has long focused on helping people get justice in the aftermath of car and truck accidents I urge everyone to spread awareness regarding this issue and to lobby the NHTSA for greater transparency and an updated safety standard: one that reflects 21st century cars and the way they are driven in the real world. The industry, which fought seat belts, air bags and every other safety innovation proposed over the years, cannot be counted on to take action on its own. A bill proposed by two Democratic senators that would force new standards and greater transparency is a good start (see The Oregonian’s article for a link), but it will only move forward if Americans at all levels demand better action from our government and accountability from the car industry.
The Oregonian: Seatback failures: A hidden danger in many vehicles
ORS 30.920: When seller or lessor of product liable
ORS 30.020: Action for wrongful death
Safety Research & Strategies: Is NHTSA Ready to Strengthen Seat Backs?