Yielding Car Seats: Death at the Weakest Link

Air Bag Defect Attorney - The Cooper Firm

Yielding Car Seats: Death at the Weakest Link

We all know the many analogies. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. A three-legged stool can’t stand on two legs.   For want of a shoe the rider was lost. The iron man had clay feet. If you’ve left anything undone, you’ve left everything undone. Such analogies all apply when a weak link, sometimes the smallest part, destroys the strength or effectiveness of the overall product.

That is the sad case with many automobile seats. So much modern attention is paid to seat belts, air bags, and strong solid doors. But, if you do not stay in your seat during a wreck, all of those safety features are meaningless. Those features cannot function as designed, nor will they protect you if they are the weakest and first link in the chain. Defective seats nullify all the other safety features built so proudly into your car. Seats fail in the seatback, the recliner mechanisms, and the seat tracks. Seats tend to behave correctly in frontal collisions. It’s those from the rear that are the larger problem.

In rear impacts, it is well known that car seats can break or deform backwards. If they do that, the driver or passenger is left unrestrained. The driver’s body slips out from under the lap belt and the shoulder belt no longer holds the driver to the seat back, which has moved. As a result, the driver or passenger can fly out of the seat, usually rearward, where they hit the passengers behind them.  That can cause serious injury to both the driver and to the passengers or, in some cases, the driver might hit other objects coming forward in the impact, such as spare tires or parts of the trunk and back seat. Drivers can slip out the lap belt and ramp up over the back of the seat. Or some portion of their body can be partially ejected. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) has estimated that in 1990 over 1,100 people died from collapsed seats. Over 1,600 more suffered other injuries due to failed seats, or to seats that simply yielded too far backwards.

The most common problems and seat failure dynamics include, according to one seat expert:

  • Loss of car control when the driver’s seat fails backwards and the driver can no longer steer or brake the car correctly.
  • Ineffective restraint systems that allow the occupant to twist and turn, or even come out from under the belt completely, enabling them to move rearward and injure themselves.
  • Full or partial ejection out of the car.
  • Injuries to the passengers in the rear of the car, including body to head and head to head contact that result in severe injury or death.
  • Inability of rear seat passengers to escape a wrecked car because they are trapped under the seats, which deformed rearward and trapped their legs or body.

All of these seat failures can happen at any speed, ranging from low speeds to high speeds. Thus, we think speed is not the real issue. It is about the seat strength. 

Seats can also fail even if the seat performs as the car makers currently intend them to perform, namely, by simply yielding too much during the crash impact.  The current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (“FMVSS”) 207 governs seat strength.  It is a minimum standard that the car makers have to meet.  Congress enacted it as part of the 1966 Safety Act. FMVSS 207 was grossly inadequate in 1966. As designed, FMVSS 207 gives you only about two percent of the frontal protective force of FMVSS 207 when you are hit in the rear. FMVSS 207 is still grossly inadequate, primarily because the car makers oppose making it any stronger and have aggressively opposed efforts to make the seatbacks stronger and more rigid. They have lobbied NHTSA to reject efforts to improve and modernize the standards in FMVSS 207, even though some fixes involve one dollar and a pound of added steel.

NHTSA is a federal agency. Because of the Supremacy Clause in the U.S. Constitution, the federal government’s safety rules “preempt” anything the States might do. Thus, our local governments can do nothing. But you can. Write your U.S. Senators and Congressmen and tell them to enact improvements that add strength to FMVSS 207.

You can find their addresses at https://www.opencongress.org/.

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