In frontal impact collisions, seatbelts and airbags are intended to protect us from serious injury. In addition, in rear impacts, it is the seatback that serves as the restraint system. The seatback and head rest are intended to hold the head and torso in place when a vehicle is struck from behind. However, seatback failures occur all too commonly in rear impact collisions, often resulting in catastrophic injuries to the occupant and anyone sitting in the seat behind.
When a seatback fails in a rear impact, the occupant becomes unrestrained and is projected rearward, either colliding with a person in the seat behind, or the rear seatback itself. Oftentimes, the result is catastrophic injuries to the person seated in the rear seat (where we place our children because of safety concerns related to children and airbags in front seats), or, to the occupant him or herself. If the front seat occupant is projected rearward and collides with the rear seatback, they may break their neck or suffer a catastrophic brain injury.
The risks of rear end collisions and seat back collapse have been known for decades
For decades, safety engineers have written about the inherent risks associated with rear-end collisions and seat collapse. In the late 1960s, automotive researchers at UCLA conducted a series of rear-end crash tests and stated:
- Seats, designed for collision safety, represent the most important single life-saving device that can be provided to motorists. Properly designed high-back sears provide an inner protective shield around the passenger.
- The 55 mph collision exposures reported in this paper establish that a well-designed safety seat would protect most passengers sustaining any rear-end collision injury. Considerably safer seats can be designed on the basis of performance guidelines established by this paper.
- [not quoted for the purposes of this article]
- An adequately designed full support system should be provided with an exceptionally rigid seat back and head support structure to restrain the motorist in his normal seated posture so that adequate accelerative support can be provided throughout the collision.”
The Federal Safety Agency ignores safety recommendations
Unfortunately, the Federal Safety Agency responsible for promulgating minimum safety standards for cars ignored these recommendations. Instead, in 1971, it published a seat strength standard (which is a quasi-static push test) that does not account for the dangers associated with weak seat backs, including: (1) the driver will lose control when their seat collapses rearward, (2) the seat belt can no longer hold the driver in the seat, (3) the driver and/or front seat occupant is thrown rearward and either impacts the back seat, occupants in the back seat (for example, a child in a car seat), or is ejected out of the car. Oftentimes in rear impact crashes, the front seat occupant can become a projectile as they are catapulted into the rear seatback.
Some automobile manufacturers have recognized the dangers of a collapsing seatback (seatback failure). Here are comments from researchers (written in the early 1990s):
“The current pattern of seatback deflection is not self-limiting, since increases in occupant load increases rotation until retention is lost. This represents an “unstable” mechanism in severe crashes. Retention of the occupant occurs solely by the component of occupant loading into the seatback times the frictional effect being greater than the tangential component which promotes ramping or siding. As seatback deflection increases, the greater rotation increases the relative magnitude of the tangential loading. This increases the possibility of losing occupant retention.”
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards remain inadequate
CBS News recently ran a story on March 10, 2021, on the dangers of collapsing seatbacks and the inadequacy of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Their seat safety standards have not been updated since the 1960s (see: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/car-seat-back-failures-accidents-kids/). A six-year CBS News investigation found potential dangers from vehicle seatbacks — and a possibly outdated government safety standard. CBS News noted, “vehicle front seats can collapse in rear-end collisions, launching occupants into the back seat with dangerous or even deadly consequences.”
The bottom line is that sadly thousands of injuries occur each year in rear-impact collisions due to defective seat and component design. Seats are an occupant restraint. They should prevent an occupant from moving rearwards in a rear impact crash. Seats should prevent the occupant from hitting the inside of the vehicle, other occupants or being ejected.
Jaime Jackson Law has extensive experience dealing with crashworthiness cases. If you or a loved one have been seriously injured or killed in an car crash and your seat did not protect you as it should have, contact us here or call us on 717-519-7254.