The crashworthiness of today’s vehicles are at levels not seen before, automakers claim, using a variety of test results to support the assertion. Those claims are most likely true, except for one, little-thought about part of the car: the seat back.
Two of the biggest critics of automakers, Sens Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), are pushing the companies to address a new concern: the weakness of seat backs.
The two senators have asked 17 automakers to provide a spate of documents about their vehicles and specifically, the seat backs.
The pair are concerned that the focus on making a safer car has allowed for laxity in this arena. The regulations for seats haven’t been updated since the 1960s while just about every other part imaginable on a vehicle has seen new rules upon new rules.
“There has been a long-standing concern that the (standard) … is not sufficient to mitigate injury or death of a rear-seat occupant due to seat back collapse in a rear-end collision,” according to the letter sent to the makers.
Markey and Blumenthal asked the companies for information and data about consumer complaints and incidents involving seat collapses, lawsuits and seat strength that exceed federal standards.
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Members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the senators have long-pressured automakers to improve safety standards. In this case, they point out that small children and infants are vulnerable to front seat back failures. According to an independent study, about 50 children have died in rear-end crashes in the last 15 years after being put behind occupied front seats.
Often in a rear-end collision, the front seat back collapses and can crush the occupant in the rear seat resulting in injuries, or as the study points out, even death.
Letters were sent to GM, Ford, FCA, Toyota North America, American Honda Motor, Hyundai Motors North America, Nissan North America, Subaru Motors America, Mercedes Benz USA, Volkswagen Group of America, BMW North America, Mazda North America, Porsche, Jaguar Land Rover North America, Mitsubishi, Volvo and Audi of America.
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While no automakers responded publicly to the letters, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the trade group that represents a dozen automakers, did release a statement noting that seat back strength for most seats is three to four times higher than what current regulations require.
“While much of the safety focus today is on crash-avoidance technologies like automatic braking, automakers continue to enhance crash worthiness,” the group said in a statement to USA Today.
“While it is challenging to migrate all front-seat restraint technologies, such as full-size frontal air bags” to back seats, other technologies – especially those used in modern seat belts – “can be effective for backseat occupants” and their use should be encouraged.
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“The alliance believes the single best safety system for occupants in the rear seats is the seat belt,” the statement said.