By on April 25, 2019

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, currently on a never-ending quest to improve automotive safety and provide underwriters with data, suggested on Thursday that rear-seat passengers are getting the short end of the stick. The announcement comes shortly after the State of Washington announced a new law that would update its Child Passenger Restraint Law, requiring older children to utilize a booster seat.

Having looked at rear-seat safety for years, the IIHS claims rear-seat occupants are now at a disadvantage compared to occupants in the front row. The group aims to develop a new evaluation method to encourage automakers to improve safety systems for back seat passengers and track their progress. 

“Manufacturers have put a lot of work into improving protection for drivers and front-seat passengers. Our moderate overlap front crash test and, more recently, our driver-side and passenger-side small overlap front tests are a big reason why,” IIHS President David Harkey said. “We hope a new evaluation will spur similar progress in the back seat.”

Thanks to crash tensioners, airbags, and structural improvements designed to help automakers ace the IIHS small overlap tests, the safety of front-seat occupants has only grown over the past two decades. The same cannot be said for the people behind them, even though it was long assumed that the back seat was the safest place to be in the event of a crash.

While the group never directly refutes that assumption, it did say that more should be done to improve safety, adding that it’s actively hunting for supportive data. IIHS researchers used two national databases to find 117 crashes in which rear-seat occupants were killed or seriously injured. The most common type of injury, found in 22 of the injured occupants and 17 of the 37 fatalities with documented injuries, was to the chest.

From the IIHS:

In many of the cases in the new study, the back-seat passengers were injured more severely than the front-seat occupants, suggesting the restraints in the rear didn’t perform as well as the ones in the front.

Using information in the case records — including things like photographs, police and medical records, and crash investigation and autopsy reports — the researchers determined that the rear-seat chest injuries were mostly due to excessive forces from the shoulder belt.

Force limiters like the ones in the front seat would be one way to reduce belt injuries. Another possible solution is an inflatable seat belt of the type introduced by Ford and Mercedes-Benz. These belts inflate in a crash to better distribute forces across the torso and chest.

Head injuries were the second most-likely cause of death but, unlike the chest-related deaths, the IIHS claims most were unsurvivable. It was suggested that, under ideal circumstances, something could be done to minimize injuries to the chest while ensuring that the head doesn’t snap forward on its own.

“This is a big reason why force limiters usually go hand in hand with crash tensioners,” explained IIHS Senior Research Engineer Jessica Jermakian. “With a crash tensioner, a person is held firmly against the seat from the beginning of the crash, so a slight loosening of the belt from the force limiter isn’t a big a problem.”

There was also an emphasis placed on children, as they are more susceptible to injuries caused by ill-fitting seat belts and being tossed around the cabin in the event of a crash. However, the IIHS ultimately decided that child restraints have come up in the world and that it’s adults and teens who are taking on more risk in the backseat.

“Child restraints are so effective that when young children in properly used restraints die, it’s usually because the crash was so severe that improving the restraints wouldn’t have made a difference,” explained Jermakian. “The fact that our sample had mostly survivable crashes tells us that we need to do a better job restraining adults and older children in the back seat.”

The IIHS says it’s too early to begin telling automakers what, exactly, should be done. Right now the group is looking at everything from improving belt restraints to implementing rear-seat airbags. Its primary goal remains finding an effective way to evaluate rear-seat protection in a manner that “will prompt automakers to figure out what combination of technologies works best.”

[Image: IIHS]

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19 Comments on “IIHS to Automakers: Stop Tapping the Brakes on Rear-seat Safety...”

  • avatar

    Probably doesn’t mean anything anymore, but once upon a time, rear seat safety mean condoms.

  • avatar

    Rear seat airbags? So then my kids who are too old for carseats can’t sit in the back either because the airbag will kill them there too?

    And then what happens if that airbag goes off when a carseat is firmly wedged between the front and rear seats. I’ve seen those videos of people launching all sorts of things with airbags. There is no way I’m buying a car with rear seat airbags.

    Side impact airbags make sense, a lot of cars use them already, but they don’t explode in your face, just make you deaf in one ear.

    • 0 avatar

      The airbags they’re advocating inflate the seatbelt itself to make it wider and softer. They’re actually specifically designed for young/small people whose bones can’t handle the force of a crash being concentrated in the shoulder strap of a seatbelt. My F-150 has them, and the side effect they don’t mention is that, because the inflator lives in the fixed part of the buckle and has to be sealed tight against the other half of the buckle that forms part of the belt itself, they’re quite difficult to get clicked in. The upshot is that rear passengers struggle with it for a while before sometimes just giving up and riding unbuckled. I don’t advocate this, but I can’t really tell grown up folks what to do.

      • 0 avatar
        Matt Posky

        The IIHS is also examining the possibility of endorsing airbags embedded into seat backs, although the solution was downplayed as they plan on conducting more research.

        From “A rear-seat frontal airbag also would allow for a more forgiving seat belt and would protect the head.”

        • 0 avatar

          So let me see if I’ve got this straight: airbags everywhere will save lives (including in the back of the driver’s head for rear seat occupants).

          Will insurance cover learning American Sign Language because you’ll be rendered deaf?

  • avatar

    The crash tensioner issue makes sense, but I wonder how compartment size affects this. Backseats sure seem smaller than the old days. If I’m properly restrained but I’ve still got the front seat up against my knees, I think I’m gonna get squashed.

  • avatar

    This sounds like another ploy for IIHS to add a testing methodology that they can later sell to automakers in the form of Top Safety Pick awards.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      On one hand, the IIHS can be a bit much sometimes. On the other hand, automakers have demonstrated on a consistent basis that they will do the bare minimum to get those safety ratings, and mostly do not holistically design their cars to be safe.

      For example, many, many cars recently were found not to have the same protections for the passenger-side small overlap as the driver-side. Why? Because the IIHS wasn’t testing that. And one particular automaker (that rhymes with “gourd”) chose not to include vital structural supports on their extended-cab truck for a good small overlap score…because it’s not as popular as the crew-cab version and they didn’t think the IIHS would evaluate it.

      So, yeah, we kind of need the IIHS to slap wrists.

  • avatar

    37 fatalities from searching two national databases? The IIHS needs to turn off the lights and go home. They’ve outlived their purpose.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    This is why I don’t let rear passengers sit in my car unbuckled. “I don’t have to wear my seatbelt if I’m in the back, do I?”

    Uh, yes, you do.

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