The Center for Auto Safety has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to warn parents that placing their children in rear seats behind occupied front seats may put the children at risk of serious injury or death if the car is rear-ended in a crash. The CAS said this is because of the serious inadequacy of federal motor vehicle standard FMVSS 207, which specifies minimum seat and seatback crash performance levels.
CAS is asking NHTSA to give parents the following warning:
If possible, children should be placed in rear seating positions behind unoccupied front seats. In rear-end crashes, the backs of occupied front seats are prone to collapse under the weight of their occupants. If this occurs, the seat backs and their occupants can strike children in rear seats and cause severe or fatal injuries.
ICAS sent NHTSA a timeline — “Collapsing Seatbacks and Injury Causation: A Timeline of Knowledge” — that summarizes what it calls inaction by manufacturers and the NHTSA to ensure the adequate protection of people seated in the front and back seats of vehicles.
CAS also gave NHTSA a detailed analysis of lawsuits, police reports, and litigated cases to prove that the seatback collapse risk is more dangerous than NHTSA believes. The government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System database typically does not include information on seatback collapse, CAS wrote, saying:
Out of 64 seat back collapse death and injury crashes, the Center only found 2 where the police report referenced seat back collapse.
However, an analysis that Friedman Research Corp. did at CAS’s request found that from 1990 to 2014, almost 900 children who were seated behind a front seat passenger, or in a center rear seat, died in rear impacts of cars built in 1990 and later.
NHTSA has urged parents to put children in rear seats of cars, because children could be injured by inflating airbags in the front seats, in the event of a car accident. However, CAS writes, the unintended result of the rear seat policy has put children at risk of serious injury or death when seated behind a front seat passenger.
‘Even a Banquet Chair Can Pass’
In an article for CBS News, Megan Towey and Kris Van Cleave write that their investigation of this serious safety defect showed how it can happen, in crash test videos they obtained. Of the federal standard for front seats, they wrote: “An accident expert hired by CBS News showed us the standard is so low even a banquet chair can pass.”
The CBS reports said that “internal” documents reveal that NHTSA and automakers have known about the potential for seatback collapse for a long time, yet NHTSA has said it would “very challenging” to strengthen the rule, because such accidents are rare. But, CBS quoted an engineer who said it would only cost carmakers about a dollar to strengthen the seats.
Which Rear Seats Are Safest?
Accident experts said at least three automakers — Mercedes Benz, BMW, and Volvo — have seats that are well above the NHTSA standard to prevent seatback failures.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said the agency will be providing guidance for parents on which rear seats are safest for children.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the center for Auto Safety, told CBS: “There’s no excuse for NHTSA’s inaction on this serious safety defect.”
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