A story from the Washington Post referenced a study in the current issue of the Journal of Traffic Injury Prevention that found that rear-facing children have some risk for head injuries in rear-end crashes. When a car is rear-ended, a rear-facing car seat is likely to rotate toward the back of the car, which could throw a child’s head into the headrest or seatback. Does this spell bad news for rear-facing in general? Absolutely not.
While the study did find that children’s heads might strike the seatback/headrest in a severe rear-end crash, there are some things to keep in mind.
- Rear-facing is still safer than forward-facing. Head, neck, spine, and leg injuries are more likely when forward-facing, so children should stay rear-facing as long as possible.
- Severe rear-end crashes are rare. Rear-end crashes account for only around 5% of crashes with fatal injuries, according to the latest IIHS data.
- Overall, rear-end crashes account for about 25% of all crashes, but most of these are not severe or fatal. This study tested seats at 30 mph, which might seem slow, but keep in mind that most rear-end crashes actually happen at much lower speeds than frontal crashes, usually after some amount of braking has occurred.
- The study tested only three seats (using three different installation methods for each one) in one vehicle model, a 2012 Toyota Camry rear seat. Although we can take away some information from this study, it is not exhaustive.
- Severe and fatal injuries to rear-facing children are much less likely than to forward-facing children. According to NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge quoted by the Post, “Real-world crash data does not indicate children in rear-facing car seats are being injured by contacting the seat on rebound.”
Parents are often worried about the possibility that their rear-facing children might strike the seatback in a rear-end crash or due to the rebound that occurs after the initial impact in a frontal crash. Those concerns aren’t necessarily unwarranted, but they need to be kept in perspective: In real-life scenarios, rear-facing children are far safer than forward-facing ones.
The study does raise a good argument for better rebound control on car seats. Rear-tethers (uncommon on USA seats) and anti-rebound bars can do a lot to keep seats from rotating too much toward the back of the car. Even without these features rear-facing seats are very safe, but perhaps research like this will lead manufacturers to include anti-rebound technology. (And maybe it will encourage the NHTSA to update federal standards in the USA.) Canada implemented a limitation for rebound on rear-facing carseats in 2012.
In the meantime, keep those kiddos rear-facing. It’s still the best way to ride. If your rear-facing carseat does not have an anti-rebound feature, then also consider removing any hard objects attached to the vehicle seat or head restraint. These include video monitors, mirrors with hard surfaces or toys that are heavy or have sharp edges.