Automobile Seat Hazards – Will Regulatory Change Help?

Automobile Seats Can Pose Significant Hazards

Considering what are the most important safety features in our motor vehicles, people will tend to focus on parts and systems that are most obviously intended to protect us from serious injury or even death when traffic accidents occur. There’s an obvious reason why seatbelts are required in our autos and why we’re required to wear them. Watching a crash test video makes it clear how airbags can protect us from serious injury in many collisions and why news of defective airbags is such a big deal. One equally significant safety device that many people don’t even think about, however, is the car seatback. While an airbag may protect us from injury in a sudden front-end collision, we’re just as likely to need protection in a significant rear-end collision that suddenly and violently forces driver and passenger bodies backward. Defective seatbacks cause injuries when they fail to protect the person seated in them, as well as causing injuries to the passengers (often children) who are seated behind them when they collapse.

An experienced personal injury attorney can help people injured by defective seatbacks secure appropriate compensation when such an incident occurs.

Injuries to Children from Defective Seatbacks

During the 1990s, studies concluded that children seated in the front seats of passenger vehicles were at an increased risk of injury when airbags deployed — the forceful expansion of an airbag is designed to stop the movement of a full-size adult, but when deployed against a small child this force can cause serious injury or even death. As a result, the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) and many other auto safety advocacy organizations advised that younger children be required to sit in rear seats only. Most states now have laws requiring this.

Over time, however, it became clear that moving young children to rear seats exposed them to a different type of injury risk. A study in 2008 by experts from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia of more than 1,000 accidents involving children who were in rear seats of automobiles that were struck in rear-end collisions had their likelihood of serious injury or death almost doubled when the seatback in front of the child was damaged or deformed during the impact. The reason for this is simple — in a significant rear-end impact, the weight of an adult in the front seat is suddenly pushed backward against their seatback. If that seatback fails and collapses backward, it does so directly onto or into any child who may be seated behind the adult.

Part of this tendency is simply the possibility of a seatback’s structure failing when significant force is placed upon it — any piece of hardware will have a breaking point. However, some of these occurrences happen because some seatbacks were actually designed to “yield” backward in order to reduce the likelihood of upper body injuries to front seat passengers.

Injuries to Adults from Defective Seatbacks

When an adult driver or front seat passenger has their seatback fail during a serious rear-end impact, their body suddenly and forcefully straightens, with their backs and necks being flexed backward. As a result, injuries to adults from defective seatbacks are often spinal injuries ranging from significant soft tissue hyperextension injuries to vertebral fractures or even spinal cord damage causing paralysis or death. The adult driver or passenger can also have their head impact anything (including a child passenger) that may have been in the seat behind them, leading to head injuries.

Scope of the Problem

One expert with the Center for Auto Safety has estimated that collapsing seatbacks result in an average of 64 adults dying or sustaining serious injuries per year, as well as approximately 50 fatalities in children each year.

The fact that seatbacks can fail is not new, and it certainly isn’t news for auto manufacturers and NHTSA, who have long been aware of the problem. One significant part of the problem is that while manufacturers and NHTSA have long insisted that manufacturers are producing seatbacks in accordance with the federal regulator’s requirements, those requirements for seatbacks — Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 207 — haven’t been changed since the late 1960s. An amendment to this section of the standards was just made in March 2022, but whether it will adequately address problems — and how long that will take — remains to be seen.

When a serious injury results from a defective car seatback, an experienced personal injury attorney can be key to victims receiving appropriate compensation for their injuries.  Auto products liability claims and lawsuits are typically complex and expensive compared to other types of personal injury claims, and it’s important to seek advice from an attorney with the skills, experience, and resources that are needed.

View this recent CBS News video describing the seatback problem and recent regulatory changes:

Sacramento Auto Products Liability Lawyer

Hello, I’m Ed Smith, and I am a Sacramento Auto Products Liability Lawyer. Sometimes, the parts of our automobiles and other machines that we think about the least may be among the most important for our safety. Car seatbacks certainly fall within this category, and when they fail, serious injuries or even death may be the result both for the person sitting in the seat and whoever – often a child – is seated behind them. If you or a member of your family has experienced injury due to a failed seatback in a motor vehicle collision, please call us for free and friendly advice at (916) 921-6400 or (800) 404-5400, or reach out to us by using our online contact form.

We are proud to be among the injury attorneys of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and to be members of the National Association of Distinguished Counsel.

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Photo by Mikes-Photography from Pixabay

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