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Faulty Car Seat Backs Remain a Problem, Despite Tragic Incidents

The laws involving how children must be secured when riding in a vehicle have changed considerably since when many of us were young. Gone are the days when kids sat in the front seat with their parents, maybe with a seat belt and maybe not. Now children must be secured in a safety seat in one of the rear seats. Sadly, however, that very position can be fatal because of another issue -- faulty seat backs.

In one case, a 16-month-old girl died when her family's Honda Odyssey was rear-ended by a driver going 55 mph. The impact of the crash caused her father's seat back to collapse, fatally striking the little girl in the head.

Children sitting behind collapsed seat backs aren't the only ones in danger. People in the collapsed seat can sustain serious injuries. A 78-year-old woman was paralyzed when the seat back in her Dodge Caravan broke during a crash.

In both of these cases, the automakers involved settled personal injury lawsuits with the victims. However, these collapses have occurred in vehicles made by virtually every major Japanese and American automaker.

One crash expert says that automakers have known about the problem for decades. In fact, back in the 1990s, it was learned that General Motors tied their crash test dummies in their seats because the chances "were pretty high," according to one engineer, of the expensive dummies being damaged.

Safety experts as well as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have known about the problem with seat back safety for decades. A bit more recently, in 2000, the NHTSA administrator at the time acknowledged that the agency was "working off of 30-year-old standards."

However, all these years later, those standards haven't changed. In 2004, NHTSA actually terminated a rulemaking proceeding "seeking to improve motor vehicle seat performance in rear impacts." After "extensive physical testing," it concluded that "additional research and data analyses are needed to allow an informed decision on a rulemaking action in this area."

So what are consumers to do? If federal regulators won't require stronger seat backs, we can only hope that individual automakers will take it upon themselves to improve them. If enough people take legal action when a car seat back collapses in an auto accident, automakers may find it financially worthwhile to make the changes on their own, and regulators may finally take long-overdue action.

Source: CBS News, "NHTSA standards fail to protect from car seat fatalities, experts say," Oct. 28, 2015

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