The seats inside of vehicles play a major role in the safety of drivers and passengers. For decades, consumer safety advocates have lobbied state governments to make wearing seat belts mandatory. Today, almost all states have mandatory seat belt laws, and in South Carolina, failure of any driver or passenger age 6 or older to wear a seat belt is a primary offense.
The safety of children is among the greatest concerns when riding in a car. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have child safety seat laws. These laws require children to travel in booster seats or restraints that meet the specific state specifications. In most states (including South Carolina), child safety seat laws are primary, which means a law enforcement officer can stop a motorist and issue a ticket for this offense only.
We go to great lengths to keep our kids safe when they travel, and rightfully so. But while we have been focused on seat belts, car seats, and child restraints, a hidden danger exists that does not receive the attention it deserves. This danger poses a major threat of serious injuries and fatalities to children and other passengers who ride in the back seat. It is known as a “seat back failure.”
What is a Seat Back Failure?
Seat back failures happen when the force of a vehicle collision causes the front seat to collapse backward. This occurs most commonly when a vehicle is struck in the rear. If this happens while there are passengers in the back seat, they can be struck by the back end of the seat, resulting in severe and catastrophic injuries. Drivers and passengers in the front seat can also be injured when a seat back failure causes their head to crash into a person or object in the back seat.
Some of the injuries drivers and passengers have been known to suffer from a seat back failure include:
- Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
- Spinal Cord Injuries
- Fractures/Broken Bones
- Wrongful Death
Investigation Reveals Decades of Government and Industry Negligence
A 2016 CBS News investigation uncovered some startling and highly disturbing facts about seat back failures and the lack of action on the part of the auto industry and the federal government to address this problem. CBS found that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the auto safety enforcer for the federal government, has not updated its safety standards for front seats since 1967. In those days, the standard was so low, a banquet chair would meet federal safety guidelines for seat strength. And although all vehicles today meet this subpar safety standard, a large percentage of them had seat back failures during crash tests conducted by CBS.
Here are some additional key facts that CBS uncovered:
- The NHTSA has known it needed to upgrade standards since the 1970s. In 1974, the NHTSA announced its intention to update safety standards for the entire seating system, but they abandoned the plan 30 years later in 2004 stating that it needed “additional research and data analysis.”
- Auto makers have been aware of the seat back failure issue for decades. A GM engineer admitted in a 1996 deposition that the company had started tethering crash dummies to the seats during crash tests because the dummies were “expensive” and the “chances of losing them were pretty high”.
- The cost of making the seats safe for consumers would be minimal. One engineer who was deposed in a lawsuit said strengthening the seats to adequately protect drivers and passengers would cost “on the order of a dollar or so”.
Why are the NHTSA seat back standards still so low?
During the CBS investigation, the NHTSA administrator at the time declined to comment on what, if anything, is being done to make seat backs safer. The NHTSA is supposedly looking into the issue, but it insists that seat back failure accidents are “very rare” and thus it is “very challenging” to upgrade the standard.
During its investigation, CBS identified over 100 individuals who have been severely injured or killed due to seat back failures since 1989, the majority of these victims being children. While it may be true that these incidents don’t occur as often as other hazardous events, that is no excuse to turn a blind eye to the issue and continue with safety standards that were established in the 1960s – especially when the cost to make the seat back safe is only a couple of dollars!
It is important to note that juries have given out large damage awards against auto manufacturers whose seat backs have failed, even though they met the NHTSA’s clearly subpar safety standard. For example, a few years ago, a Texas jury awarded $124.5 million in damages against Audi after an 11-year-old suffered permanent debilitating injuries from being struck by a seat back while riding in the back seat of the family’s Audi sedan in 2012.
Audi and several other auto makers have had recalls in recent years for faulty seat backs. The other auto manufacturers that have recalled vehicles include:
Unfortunately, there is no way of knowing for sure if the vehicle you drive has a safe seat back. Even if your vehicle has a 5-star safety rating, it could still be susceptible to a seat back failure during a collision. This is why it is imperative for the NHTSA to revise its seating system safety standards ASAP. If you would like to get in touch with the NHTSA about this issue, their contact information is available here.
CBS reported that at least three automakers have strengthened their seat backs to well above NHTSA standards. They are BMW, Mercedes Benz, and Volvo.
Injured in a Seat Back Failure? Contact a Knowledgeable South Carolina Personal Injury Attorney
While a seat back collapsing is a fairly rare occurrence, the results of it happening can be catastrophic. If you or someone close to you has been injured or killed in a seat back failure, you need skilled legal counsel in your corner aggressively advocating for your rights and interests. At Peake & Fowler, we have stood up for personal injury victims in South Carolina since 2000. We have a successful track record with even the most complex cases, and we work tirelessly to recover full and fair compensation for each client we serve.
Call our office today at 803-998-2412 for a free consultation, or send us a message through our online contact form.