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The Dangers of Defective Car Seatbacks Exposed

Over the past decade, the media has widely covered instances of fuel system, airbag and seatbelt defects, but there is another dangerous defect that has not reached the public's attention. This defect is car seatback failure which occurs during low- and moderate-speed rear-end collisions.

Millions of vehicles on the road today have this defective seat design and allow thousands of otherwise preventable injuries to occur each year. Passengers in vehicles with defective seatbacks have sustained catastrophic injury, brain damage and quadriplegia, all because the federal regulation governing the requirements for these car seats is inadequate.

Car Seat as Safety Mechanism

Automotive safety principles require that a vehicle be designed to reduce or eliminate the risk of injury in possible collisions and impacts, and car manufacturers are liable to consider their model's ability to withstand collision despite the fact that it is not the intended use of the automobile. The structure of the vehicle itself must protect passengers, but crash safety relies more upon adequate occupant retraining devices.

The vehicle seat plays a significant role in a passenger's safety as it performs the same function in rear-end collisions as a seatbelt does for frontal collisions: to prevent the occupant from being thrust rearward or ejected from the vehicle altogether. Automobile seats have been called "the most important single lifesaving device available" although manufacturers are permitted to produce defective car seats under weak and ineffective Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 207.


No standards controlled the design and performance of automobile seats before the 1960s and the basic car seat design created in the mid-1930s is what was familiar in later, mid-century cars. Minimum standards for car seat performance were not improved upon since this early design. By 1966, an initial standard finally required car seats to protect a load equal to thirty times the weight of the seat, and to prove so in tests, but this was quickly changed to only twenty times the weight of the seat after General Motors submitted a critique of the standard. This became the standard applicable to multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks and buses, and was soon adopted in Europe as well.

Car Seat Failure

The standard may sound efficient, but FMVSS 207 has been widely criticized for its lack of safety since its inception. It shows no improvement to earlier designs of seats and is even weaker than some seats produced in the 40s and 50s. The standard is static, not dynamic, and most auto manufacturers have internal standards that are better than FMVSS 207, though they are all insufficient to prevent seat failure in reasonably foreseeable rear-impact collisions.

Even testing required by FMVSS 301, a standard for fuel system integrity, exposes the inadequacy of 207. As rear impact collisions of 30 mph are tested for 301, almost all bucket and split bench seatbacks fail and strike rear seats.

Safety experts spoke out with respect to car seat defects decades ago, explaining "high-speed impacts may force the front seat passenger up the plane of the back-rest to whiplash him or break the seatback, releasing him to the rear seat area or even out the rear door, notwithstanding the use of a lap belt; neither of these extremes represent acceptable or satisfactory solutions to a serious and very frequently occurring type of accident."

Tests involving anthropomorphic dummies have exposed the total danger of car seatback failure where a permanently deformed seatback was left on the scene of a crash where the dummies in the vehicle sustained a variety of serious injuries, even when wearing seatbelts.

Car Seat Failure

The key issues of defective car seat systems, as summarized by safety experts, are as follows:

  1. Loss of vehicle control by a driver when seatback collapses during rear impact.
  2. Reduced effectiveness of restraint system when seatback collapses and allows the front seat passenger to slide rearward and impact rear seats, objects and passengers.
  3. Ejection of occupants who have slipped out from collapsed restraint systems as a result of car seatback failure.
  4. Risk of injury posed to rear passengers who will be struck by rearward motion of collapsed front seats and passengers.
  5. Injury to rear passengers whose bodies may be trapped under the deformed plastic of collapsed front seats.
  6. Injury to restrained front seat passengers during frontal impact when seats collapse from rear loading of lap belted or unrestrained rear seat passenger.

The consequences of car seat failures are serious injuries and sometimes fatal. Estimates pose that in 1990 alone, 1,100 people died and 1,600 more suffered catastrophic injury because of defective car seatbacks collapsing in rear-end collisions.

Car Seat Design Solutions

Experts have been proposing new, safer car seat designs for a long time. One example is a rigid seatback design with head support structures that are sufficient to restrain a motorist in a normal seated posture during a collision. Rigid seats stay in an anchored position despite impact, and allow the occupant to remain within the seat restraints.

In 1970, a Ford Motor Company engineer predicted: "As measures are developed to provide better restraint of the head, seatback strength will probably be increased to better retain the occupant in his seat. The intent, in this instance, would be to prevent his contact with rear seat occupants. The degree of increase and resistance to rearward bending may be anywhere from two or three times, to more than ten times the current level."

Despite recommendations to improve safety over the last few decades, occupants in contemporary automobiles are continuously injured because of the low safety standards of the ineffective seats that have been produced.

Auto manufacturers will continue to resist efforts to eliminate the defects in seats in most vehicles people drive today. The requirements in FMVSS 207 must be changed in order to prevent catastrophic and fatal injuries to occupants. Pressure from competitors, defective product lawyers and auto safety experts will hopefully force manufacturers to adhere to safer designs and promote a necessary standard of safety that even governmental safety standards have failed to require.

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