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  • Writer's pictureJinks Crow

Seatback Failure in Automobiles

It has recently come to light that many passenger cars have an apparent defect that can cause serious injury or death. In a rear-end collision, the front seatbacks can collapse, thrusting the seat back and the occupant of that seat violently into the back seat. This is very dangerous for the occupant of that seat, but it is even more dangerous for a passenger in the back seat who is located directly behind the failing seatback. And if that occupant is a child the results can be tragic.

All parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles know that the safest place for a child to be placed in a car is in the back seat and in an approved car seat or booster seat if necessary. But when the seat back in front of the child collapses backward the resulting injuries can be devastating and permanent.

A Texas jury recently returned a verdict of more than $124.5 million against automaker Audi because the failure of its seat back caused permanent brain damage and paralysis to a seven-year-old passenger in the back seat. Subsequently, CBS News did an investigation into this problem. Their findings are shocking. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) promulgates safety standards for passenger cars. Its seatback standard has not been updated since 1967. When automakers are criticized for manufacturing flimsy and defective seatbacks they proudly say that their seatbacks meet or exceed the NHTSA standard. Therefore, they say, their seatbacks are not defective. The jury in Texas disagreed.

Carmakers and NHTSA have known about the danger and potential for seatback failure for many years. Over one hundred people have been injured because of this failure. Most of them were children. Almost twenty people have died because of this defect. Many of these defective seatbacks are incredibly flimsy. They have been likened to a banquet chair. Incredibly, even a banquet chair would apparently meet the NHTSA safety standard. Testimony in a previous case from an automotive engineer indicates that the cost to fix this problem would be about one dollar per seat.

Who is manufacturing these dangerous cars? Almost every major automotive manufacturer has experienced similar incidents. Only a few car manufacturers have addressed this problem. BMW, Volvo, and Mercedes-Benz have stepped up and voluntarily strengthened their seatbacks, greatly exceeding the grossly outdated NHTSA safety standard.

The CDC lists motor vehicle injuries as the leading cause of death for children in the United States. Congress should demand that the automobile industry correct this shocking problem. What can you do? Write your congressman. And remember, the safest place in a car for children is still the back seat, if possible behind an unoccupied front seat. Use approved car seats and booster seats for small children.


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