Vehicles Archive

Collapsing Vehicle Seat Backs: What Can You Do?

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nhtsa collapseIf you’ve paid attention to the news during the past year or two, you’ve probably come across some stories about front vehicle seats collapsing in crashes. In some cases, drivers and backseat passengers—including children—have been killed. Clearly, this is a potentially important safety matter, and one that an outlet like CarseatBlog should tackle, which we haven’t done until now.

It’s not that we haven’t noticed; it’s that usually when a subject like this comes up, there’s some kind of relatively easy way to avoid the problem. This one, like the Takata Airbag issue, is tough to write about because so much is out of a consumer’s power to avoid it. But we’ll try.

Basically, this is an issue of seat strength. In some rear-end crashes, especially high-speed ones, front vehicle seats have been found to collapse backwards. This can cause injuries to the front seat occupant, from “simple” whiplash to more extreme injuries like paralysis or death when the occupant ramps upward and hits the back seat or another part of the car. It’s also possible for people to be ejected backwards.

Clearly, a front seat collapsing also becomes a hazard for anyone riding behind that seat. There have been fatalities due to the front seat collapsing onto a rear passenger.

Because of reporting procedures, it’s hard to get an exact number on the amount of fatalities caused by collapsing seat backs. One expert interviewed by CBS news says that seat backs collapse (though not necessarily fatally) every day. That same report says that at the time of the story, nine children were known to have died due to collapsing seat backs. In another CBS report, a spokesman for The Center for Auto Safety, a consumer protection organization, says that 50 children a year are killed that way. Clearly there is a huge discrepancy between 50 per year and nine in an unknown timeframe, and I don’t know if anyone has definitive answers.

NHTSAThe National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and vehicle manufacturers have been aware of this problem for decades. CBS’s 60 Minutes first tackled the issue back in 1992. According to one of the recent CBS reports, back in 1992 a man named Paul Sheridan was in charge of a minivan safety team at Chrysler. He knew about the problem of seats collapsing and tried to take steps to research and correct it, but Chrysler instead dismantled his team and withheld evidence. At the time (remember, this is 1992) NHTSA said it would look into the issue. Nearly 25 years later, nothing has changed.

NHTSA and manufacturers claim that current seat backs meet or exceed the federal standard (FMVSS 207) for seat strength, and that’s probably true. The problem is that the standard was established in 1967 and has not been updated since then. Also, the test is static not dynamic (meaning that seats are exposed to a long pull of increasing resistance rather than a sudden change of force, like what happens in a real-life crash).

It’s not FMVSS 207 that the seats are failing. Where they’re found failing (other than in real life) is in FMVSS 301, which tests fuel system integrity. According to this article (admittedly from a law firm that specializes in crash lawsuits) in the crash tests for FMVSS 301, “almost all bucket seatbacks and split bench seatbacks fail and strike the rear seats.”

I was unable to access the source they used, but I did find a report submitted to NHTSA from SAFE Laboratories, an independent research and crash testing facility. That report showed of 21 tests, nearly all resulted in the seats collapsing. It said, “Although all of the above vehicles incorporated FVMSS 207 compliant seats, when loaded dynamically in a rear impact these seats consistently failed to prevent occupant excursion into the rear compartment and potentially injurious impacts with rear structures or rear seated occupants.”

nhtsa collapse 2How has NHTSA responded to the increased media attention surrounding seat failures? Essentially by saying it’s not a problem. They say there’s not enough data to demonstrate a real-world benefit to changing the standard for seat strength.

As for vehicle manufacturers, strengthening the seat backs would cost money. How much? Well, in a 1996 deposition, a General Motors engineer said the cost to strengthen the seat backs would be about a dollar.

The Warner family, interviewed by CBS, lost their toddler in a crash when the father’s seat back collapsed on her. That father said he imagines almost anyone would be willing to pay another $50 for their vehicle if it meant their seats wouldn’t collapse on their children.

The study I referenced above from SAFE Laboratories showed that adding a second recliner to seats limited how much the seats would pivot in a crash, thereby making them more stable. I’m not sure if that’s the fix the GM engineer referred to, but there are likely many possible solutions.

What You Can Do

There’s no surefire solution to this one, but here are some things that might help.

Keep children rear-facing as long as possible

Rear-facing is safer overall, and the vast majority of crashes are frontal collisions (vs. the rear collisions where the seat backs are collapsing). It’s hard to say how much of a difference it would make for a child to be rear-facing vs. forward-facing if a seat back collapses on them, but it’s possible that a rear-facing child restraint might offer some additional protection if it’s able to stop the front seat back or keep tClek Fllo Addie RFhe child’s body contained within the shell. It’s also possible that the child restraint wouldn’t be strong enough to make a difference, but at least there’s that possibility.

(On that note, I have seen at least one instance where a forward-facing child was killed due to a known/suspected seat back collapse, and the immediate response of some safety advocates was that it wouldn’t have happened if the child had been rear-facing. First of all, we have no way of knowing whether that’s true. Second, that places blame where it doesn’t belong. The child might have been saved by a rear-facing seat, but the child almost definitely would have been saved if the front seat hadn’t collapsed in the first place.)

Keep children in the back seat

Some people are going to panic and think “The back seat is too dangerous now! Better move the kids to the front!” I understand the sentiment, but please don’t do that. The back seat is still the safest place for children. The front seat comes with its own dangers, for example airbags designed for adults (or ones that could malfunction) potentially hurting children. The vast majority of car crashes are frontal collisions, putting those front seat passengers closer to the point of impact. Also, if a child were to be sitting in the front seat and that seat collapses, the child is still likely to be injured.

Put children behind unoccupied seats

I sort of hesitate to recommend something that’s not an “official” recommendation from the CPST curriculum, but in this case I think it makes sense, when practical. In March, the Center for Auto Safety petitioned NHTSA to warn parents not to seat their children behind occupied front seats. (As far as I know, NHTSA has not yet responded and probably won’t. After all, if the agency implements that recommendation, it would essentially be admitting that collapsing seats are enough of a problem to warrant a warning. If it’s serious enough to need a warning, it’s serious enough to need fixing, which NHTSA has said isn’t the case.)

If you’re concerned, though, and if you have the room, it’s a logical solution to place children in seating positions where there isn’t an occupant in front of them. Of course, unless you have only one child (and sometimes not even then), that’s not always possible or practical.

I don’t want to see this become an official recommendation because it’s one that’s just too hard for most people to follow. But when the question of “Which side is safer: the driver’s side or passenger side?” comes up, maybe it can help to take the presence of front passengers into consideration.

Select certain brands when buying a new car

According to this CBS report, their experts state that BMW, Mercedes, and Volvo have stronger seats than their competitors. They don’t provide information to back up or explain those claims, so possibly take that with a grain of salt.

Keep calm

I know it’s a scary thought. No one wants to think about their child being killed by a collapsing seat, especially when there are already so many other dangers out there, and especially when there’s often no way to avoid a child sitting behind an occupied seat. Remember that these seat failures are occurring in rear-impact crashes. Rear-impacts are usually very low speed and account for far fewer fatalities than front- and side-impact crashes. The FMVSS 301 testing occurs at 50 mph, far faster than the typical fender-bender in heavy traffic. Although this does seem to be a serious issue that needs action, the odds of a child dying from a seat collapsing are very, very low.

Take action

If you’re concerned about this, take action. Write to your elected representatives and to NHTSA and push for a change in the standard. Write to your vehicle manufacturer to express your concern and demand that they increase the strength of their seat backs. Manufacturers know that money talks—make them listen.

Takata Airbag Recall: Get Your Car Fixed NOW!

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An attempt to save money takes lives and ultimately costs millions in fines. Are you flipping mad yet? You should be.

Takata logoIn the largest auto recall in history, tens of millions of vehicles have been recalled to have 28.8 million airbags replaced. Takata airbag inflators have injured more than 100 people and killed 11 people: 10 in the U.S. and 1 in Malaysia, with the most recent being a 17 year old Texas girl on March 31. The 17 year old was driving a 2002 Honda Civic and, according to Honda, several recall notices had been sent to the registered owners (they claim not to have received any).

This story has been in the news for years and you’ve probably paid some attention to it just because of its frequency on the news, but with the media’s fixation on the election, disease du jour, ISIS, and so on, a few airbag deaths get left behind in our daily news consumption of dread.

What’s been happening is that the airbag itself isn’t killing drivers: it’s shrapnel from the explosive device used to deploy the airbag. These metal fragments explode out at such a force that they slice right through skin, eyes, arteries, and even spinal columns. This is happening when the airbags deploy in minor crashes, collisions from which the victims should be walking away.

Before you run out and disconnect your airbags (and I know some of you will), these explosive devices, or inflators, are needed in order to deploy the airbag. In fact, they’re in other safety devices throughout your vehicle and activate in crashes, but we’re focusing on airbags here. When the airbag sensors detect a crash, the inflators ignite, starting a chemical reaction that fills the airbag with gas. It sounds crazy scary, but airbags have saved thousands of lives. Between 2010 and 2013 (the latest year from which we have data), 9,554 lives were saved by frontal airbags. Many thousands upon thousands more lives have been saved since the frontal airbag was introduced in the ‘70s.

Background

Problems with exploding airbags initially cropped up back in 2004 in Alabama when a Honda Accord airbag exploded, injuring its driver. Because it was the first incident, both Honda and Takata chalked it up to being an anomaly and moved on without issuing a recall. According to the New York Times, Honda did report the incident to NHTSA, but didn’t elaborate in the report that it was an airbag rupture. Then again in 2007, three more ruptures were reported to Honda, and again, Honda did not elaborate in their reports to NHTSA that the airbags were exploding. In 2007, Honda told Takata of the ruptures and Takata went to work to find the cause: manufacturing problems at their Mexican plant. However, the ruptures continued and after more testing, Takata linked the problem to manufacturing problems at their Washington state factory.

Recalls began in 2008 and initially only driver’s side airbag inflators were recalled, but passenger airbag inflators were added as those started to rupture as well. Then in August 2015, side airbag inflators came under inspection when a Volkswagen Tiguan’s seat mounted side airbags ruptured after a collision with a deer. GM also reported a rupture to NHTSA. This “SSI-20” inflator is found in Volkswagen and GM vehicles and has been recalled in those vehicles too.

Takata Timeline

2016 Subaru Forester Review: Safety and Performance

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Subaru Forester StockI keep hearing such good things about the Subaru Forester: It gets a 5-star rating in government crash tests, and it’s an IIHS Top Safety Pick+, so it’s hard to beat for safety. Forester owners I’ve talked to seem to love theirs. I wanted to try it out for myself, though, especially since my husband and I are in the market for a secondary car to replace our existing Honda Civic. Could the Forester be a contender?

Here’s a quick video overview, with more detailed information below.

Vehicle Features and Driving

I drove the 2016 Subaru Forester 2.5i Limited for a week. As I’ve mentioned in other vehicle reviews, I’m not a “car person” in the sense that I know a lot about fuel injectors or rear suspension. But I do know what I like, and I like a vehicle that feels responsive, as the Forester does.

First, this thing has amazing acceleration. I’d barely touch the gas pedal and it would take off—but not in a bad way. It was nice knowing I could pull out into traffic without worrying about my engine lagging behind. I didn’t do anything crazy, but it handled turns nicely, too. I’m not the kind of person who typically says, “Wow, I really enjoyed driving that,” but I really enjoyed driving that.

Forester EyeSight

EyeSight Cameras on either side of center windshield

The safety features are a big consideration with the Subaru. Foresters equipped with Subaru’s EyeSight technology earn the IIHS Top Safety Pick+. (Foresters without EyeSight are still a Top Safety Pick, just not a “plus.”) EyeSight technology is available on mid-level trim options, which is nice considering that some manufacturers offer similar safety packages only on their top trim levels.

EyeSight includes a frontal crash avoidance system that alerts drivers (through a sound and a dashboard light) when they get dangerously close to a vehicle or object in front of them. If necessary, the vehicle will apply the brakes to avoid or minimize a collision. Also included with EyeSight is a lane departure warning. If the vehicle detects dedicated lanes in the road, it can alert drivers when they veer over the lines.

The warning systems in the Forester seemed a bit more subtle than in some other cars I’ve tested. They’re still noticeable but not startling.

The Adaptive Cruise Control, which allows you to set your speed but then slows down or stops the car based on traffic ahead of it, worked perfectly the few times I tried it out. You can adjust your following distance (close, far, or in between) to your preference.

The only feature the Forester lacked that I would have appreciated is a blind-spot detection/avoidance system.

Subaru ForesterOne other nice safety feature of the Forester was adaptive headlights. My husband took the car out at night and came home to report that the headlights were flashing on and off. After doing some research, we realized it was actually the fog lights. When the headlights are on and the car turns or goes around curves, the fog light on that side of the vehicle lights up to give the driver a better view and a bit more reaction time in case something is around the bend. We were surprised that even just a slight turn of the steering wheel would activate the lights—it worked even on very subtle curves in the road, not just on tight curves. I wouldn’t say the feature was distracting, per se, but it was unusual for us. I’m sure it’s the kind of thing we would have gotten used to and not even noticed after a while.

The Forester’s fuel economy is 24 MPG city/32 MPG highway, for a combined MPG of

Car Seats and Kids

Preview: 2017 Chrysler Pacifica- Kids, Carseats & Safety

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Pacifica stockWhen CarseatBlog visited the Chicago Auto Show, we wanted to be sure to get a look at the all-new Chrysler Pacifica minivan.

The Pacifica isn’t an update of the existing Town & Country, and it’s not a revamp of the crossover Pacifica SUV/Wagon that was discontinued more than 10 years ago—it’s a completely new vehicle with a brand new look.  If you read about our little mishap, you might have the wrong impression that we were not excited by this new minivan.  To be fair, we saw a prototype at a media event and we are actually very encouraged that this should be a big improvement in terms of safety and carseat installation.

The Pacifica will be available in 7- and 8-passenger models. In both models, there are full sets of LATCH in both second-row captains chairs, and also two full sets of LATCH in the third row (more on that in a minute).  In the 8-passenger model (below, left), the center seat in the second row also has a top tether anchor.  The 7-passenger model can be configured with an aisle in the center of the 2nd row (below, right).  Sliding doors with wide openings are a given.

Pacifica 2nd center seatbelt Pacifica 2nd Tilt

Now, let’s talk about those two sets of LATCH in the third row. That sounds great, but it comes with a couple caveats. One set of LATCH is on the passenger outboard side, and appears to be pretty standard. That’s a nice improvement, too, over the Town & Country.

Pacifica 3rdThe other set of LATCH is offset between the center and driver’s outboard sides, meaning that if you installed a seat with LATCH there, you’d be using up two seating positions. (This is similar to the existing Town & Country setup.) On the plus side, that gives you plenty of room to put two seats back there. On the downside, you can only put two seats back there if you use that offset LATCH position. (You could use all three seatbelt positions, though, or install with LATCH on the passenger side and use the two seatbelts in the center and on the other side.)

The two tether anchors in the third row are designed for use with the seating positions that also have lower anchors, so there’s one for the outboard passenger side, and one that’s centered to align with that offset position. This means that particular tether anchor doesn’t align with the center or driver’s outboard seats when using a seatbelt. We don’t know whether Chrysler will allow the anchor to be used for those positions.

Pacifica offset latchThere’s one other potential downside to that offset LATCH position. Because it overlaps two regular seats, there’s a seatbelt buckle (for the driver’s side passenger) and a mini-connector (for the center seatbelt position) sitting smack-dab in the middle of the LATCH anchors. That means that a car seat would have to sit on top of the buckles. I thought for sure there would be a way to tuck them out of the way, but there wasn’t. I could kind of shove them in, but that actually created a bigger lump closer to the seat bight (photo right, tan).  Chrylser has since informed us that the display Pacifica was an older prototype third row seat configuration.  We have a photo of what will apparently be the improved final design for the third row belt layout with the buckles tucked away for LATCH installation of a carseat (below, light grey):

Pacifica New 3rd Row Bench

Photo courtesy of Chrysler

FullSizeRenderOne major complaint about the Town & Country is that the third row seatbelts often don’t fit well on kids in booster seats and kids big enough to be out of boosters. The belt might not make contact with their shoulders or torsos, which is a problem. We wanted to see if the Pacifica addressed that issue.