April 28, 2016
Every parent knows the following car safety rules when it comes to their children: put car seats in the back only, where you can properly anchor them; keep your children rear-facing as long as possible; don’t let young children sit in the front seat due to injury risks from airbags. But how many parents have heard that your child is safest sitting in the middle seat in the back so that there is no one riding in front of him or her? How many know that, if you do have to put your child behind one of the two front seats, the safest place is behind the lightest person, whether it’s the driver or passenger?
For several decades, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has known that there are certain steps that parents can take to provide the most safety for the children in their cars. The guidelines that exist today are largely their own and in theory should be simple to update. However, one aspect of car safety that they have failed to discuss with the general public is the fact that front seats can collapse in rear collisions that happen at as little as 30 miles per hour, and when those seats do collapse, the results can be devastating to everyone in the car and particularly tragic for the occupants of the back seat.
The Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit watchdog group, filed a petition on March 9 of this year that asks the NHTSA to update its guidelines to include information about the possibility of front-seat failure and to require auto manufacturers to add this same information to their manuals. What the center really wants is for the NHTSA to update its regulations, requiring sturdier front seats that are better prepared to handle the stresses of rear-end collisions. However, the NHTSA has yet to respond to the center’s petition from September of 2015 on that subject, and there is little reason to expect a response to be forthcoming given that a similar petition was filed by engineers Ken Saczalski and Alan Cantor in 1989 and came to nothing. Part of the problem in getting the NHTSA to respond to these petitions appears to be the fact that there is little reliable data on how many deaths result from seat collapses. The Center for Auto Safety believes that these deaths are underreported, saying that although the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (a federal database) does list deaths from rear collisions, it doesn’t account for those which were due to the seat failing, which can make it appear that it is a rare occurrence. Conducting some research of its own, the center concluded that an average of 50 children a year are killed in rear collisions, and they asked that the NHTSA do their own research to determine which of these were caused by seat collapse. As of now, that has not happened.
Recent lawsuits have brought this issue more to the forefront for the public, however. In San Antonio, TX, the family of Jesse Rivera Jr. won $124 million in damages from Volkswagen because he was severely injured in an accident in December 2012 when his father’s Audi was rear ended. Kayla Davidson, whose four-year-old son, Maxximus Sales, died in April 2014 when her headrest hit him in the face during a rear collision, sued GM, their seat manufacturer, and the estate of the person who crashed into her car (the driver died). GM reached a confidential settlement with Davidson in February 2016. Weston Kingsley was just 13 months old when he died in February 2014 after his father’s seat collapsed into his car seat during a rear collision. His family filed a lawsuit against the driver who rear-ended them and against FCA US LLC, also known as Chrysler, over his death in May 2015; the outcome is pending. Dzemila Heco, who was driving when her Dodge Neon was rear-ended in August 2007, became a quadriplegic from her injuries and successfully sued Johnson Controls Inc., who made the Neon’s seats. Although the case ended up settling for an undisclosed amount after an appeal, the jury originally awarded Heco and her family $43.1 million.
It remains to be seen whether these lawsuits will get the auto industry and the NHTSA to take notice of this problem and move to address it. In the meantime, the best way to protect your children is to keep them behind unoccupied seats whenever you can.