A publication from ConsumerReports provides interesting information on how better positioning of head restraints can prevent neck injuries. A rear-end crash occurs every 17 seconds in the U.S. But many vehicles offer inadequate protection from the whiplash injuries that can result, according to ConsumerReports.
“Automakers are inconsistent in providing effective head restraints in all seating positions. And auto-safety advocates tend to focus on other concerns, largely because “rear-enders” are rarely life-threatening.”
Many cars provide inadequate protection
Neck injuries are the most commonly reported type of crash-related injury. They can occur at crash speeds as low as 10 mph.
IIHS crash tests suggest why injuries are prevalent. The IIHS is the only organization that conducts dynamic tests of front seats and head restraints, and makes rear-crash-protection ratings available to the public. Of the approximately 175 vehicles for which the institute now has overall ratings, only about one-third are rated Good or Acceptable. Nearly a third are rated Marginal, and more than a third are rated Poor.
The rear seat in many vehicles is still the Wild West of rear-crash protection. Consumer Reports auto-test engineers evaluate rear-seat head restraints on every vehicle they test. Many vehicles also lack head restraints for the center-rear position, which isn’t required by the U.S. government. In Europe, it is required. Of the 2007 vehicles they’ve recently tested, only a little more than half have restraints in the rear outboard positions that are tall enough without adjustment. Only half have any restraints in the rear-center position.
More vehicles are being made with effective, adjustable head restraints in all rear positions. But those can create another problem, making it difficult for the driver to see out the rear windows. To address that, many restraints can be pushed down into a recess in the seatback or can fold out of the way when the rear seat is unoccupied. Some folds forward into the seating area, as in Volvos, because they force rear passengers to put them up before they can get comfortable.
Positioning the head restraint correctly is critical
Whatever car you drive, you’ll get the maximum whiplash protection from a head restraint that’s properly positioned. To work well, the top of the restraint should reach at least as high as the top of your ears and be relatively close to your head.
Progressive Insurance found in a 2002 survey that 40 percent of drivers did not adjust their head restraint when driving a newly purchased vehicle, and 57 percent didn’t adjust them after someone else had driven their vehicle. Only 14 percent of drivers knew the optimal positioning of a head restraint. In 2003, the IIHS did an observational survey in Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, Va., that revealed that about 56 percent of male drivers and 24 percent of female drivers had head restraints positioned too low.
In 2005 the federal government upgraded the head-restraint rule (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 202). It becomes mandatory in 2009 for vehicles built on or after Sept. 1, 2008 and will make U.S. rules as strict as those in Europe.
While the law is a step forward, Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, believes it still falls short. For instance, it doesn’t require vehicles to have rear-seat head restraints.