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Why Rear Seats Can be Dangerous for Children

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The Center for Auto Safety (CAS) is calling on federal regulators to develop and adopt new measures that better protect children from injury in car crashes. Of top concern is risk to children sitting in back seats behind those occupied by adults or older, heavier children.

Since 1991, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recommended that parents place infants, toddlers and small children in rear seats to protect them from severe dangers posed by inflating front-seat airbags. But that move has had serious, sometimes fatal unintended consequences.

Multiple studies have shown that the seatbacks of front-seat occupants are prone to collapsing during rear-impact crashes. At just 30 miles per hour, those seatbacks are capable of crushing children sitting in rear seats. In fact, CAS researchers found nearly 900 instances of children seated behind front-seat occupants being killed in rear-impact crashes between 1990 and 2014, as well as more than 20 lawsuits involving children killed or seriously injured in the rear seats of cars where an occupied front seat collapsed into the rear seats, crushing the children.

“In all too many cases, the parents are in the front seat with the heavier father driving so that the lighter mother can watch and tend to the child,” CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow said in a letter to the NHTSA. “While the rear seat is the safest location for a child, it is safer still if the child is placed behind an unoccupied front seat or behind the lightest front-seat occupant.”

Sadly, the issue isn’t news to safety officials or automotive manufacturers. Back in1967 – nearly half a century ago – the Society of Automotive Engineers issued a report noting that poorly designed seats could become injury-producing projectiles in a crash. In 1974, the NHTSA proposed a new federal motor-vehicle safety standard for crash parameters and front-seat crash performance. In 1989, a researcher petitioned NHTSA to upgrade the standard to specify that a seat must withstand both 20 times the weight of the seat-back and 20 times the weight of the occupant. But nearly 30 years later, the agency has yet to act on that petition, Ditlow says.

A direct correlation between seatback collapse and those 900 deaths has yet to be formally determined, but Ditlow points to the government’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System failing to provide enough information to track the problem. To that end, CAS officials have asked the NHTSA to investigate those deaths. 

“Until cars on the American highway are equipped with adequately strong front seats and seatbacks, children in rear seats behind occupied front seats will continue to be in danger of death or severe injury from front seatback failures in rear-end impacts,” Ditlow wrote.

We here at Harrell and Harrell urge you to take all recommended precautions when traveling with children. If your child is injured or lost in an accident due to any automotive defect or someone else’s negligence, call 800-250-1111 to speak with a product liability or personal injury attorney.

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