How Can New Crash Tests Make Automakers Increase Backseat Safety?

Natalie JaroszewskiJanuary 10, 2023 7 minutes

Automobiles used to be literal metal death traps, so crash data scientists and automotive engineers naturally spent decades examining crash patterns and innovating safer vehicles. By necessity, auto manufacturers focused on the most deadly aspects of cars, so front seat safety was a higher priority over the relatively safer back seats.

"Relatively" is the key word though. Now that front seat safety has greatly improved, researchers are now reporting that rear seats are the more dangerous of the two options. This is especially concerning as rear-seat passengers are often the young and the old. In other words, the most vulnerable among us sit in the riskier location.

It is pretty safe to assume that people want safer cars and reducing the number of fatalities on our roadways is the goal. However, as seen with automakers prioritizing the front seats, new and improved safety features develop after a problem is identified and if it claims lives.

Now let me clarify. I am not saying backseats are dangerous. What I am saying is they could be better than they are right now and improving backseat technology could save lives.

Rear Seat Safety is Fine, Not Excellent

“Technically, the back seat did not get more dangerous. The front seats just kept getting safer.”

According to a researcher at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Mr. Aditya Belwadi, it made perfect sense for automakers to initially focus on a vehicle’s front seat. He explained that if a vehicle runs head-first into something, the forces crushing the vehicle inward are less likely to compact the rear seats than the front seats because “a lot of crash energy is dissipated between the front seat and back seat.” So before our current day seatbelts, airbags, and vehicle frames, the likelihood of a fatality of a front seat occupant was much higher than that of a rear seat occupant.

IIHS Example of an Off-set Driver Side Frontal Collision

Nowadays, vehicles do not completely crunch inwards, as it is federally required for vehicles to feature airbags, and it is common for cars to have advanced safety restraints like pretensioners.

The only issue is that these front-seat safety features have stayed in the front of our vehicles. This means even though the rear seats used to be the safer location, front-seat safety has rocketed forward leaving rear-seat safety in the dust.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reports that in vehicles from 2007 and later, the risk of a fatal injury is 46% higher in the rear seat than in the front seats. Again, when we consider that rear-seat passengers tend to be young children or the elderly, who are already vulnerable, it is clear why the inclusion of rear-seat crash studies is so important. Luckily, vehicle safety experts believe the solution is simple: use front-seat tech in the backseats too.

Crash Experts Want Better Seat Restraints and Seat Belt Reminders in the Backseats

The manager of Auto Safety at the Consumer Reports Auto Test Center, Emily Thomas, believes reducing rear-seat injuries is just a matter of using existing front-seat safety mechanisms in the backseat too. Specifically, she is concerned with backseat passengers not using their seatbelts, explaining "of the 23,824 passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2020, 46 percent were unrestrained at the time of the crashes."

“Seat-belt usage is just as important for rear passengers, and yet, they don’t have the benefit of the annoying-but-effective seat-belt reminder alarms that encourage front-seat passengers to buckle up. The seat belt is your first line of defense in a crash, but it’s only effective if you’re actually buckled in.”

Emily Thomas, manager of auto safety for Consumer Report’s Auto Test Center

Emily Thomas further explained that she would like to see changes to the actual seat belts. In most (if not all) modern front seats, crash pretensioners tighten a seat belt the instant a crash begins so that an occupant’s body slows down with the vehicle. After that, force limiters let some of the seat belt’s webbing spool out. These advanced safety restraints significantly reduce the risk of chest injuries, and of course, keep occupants firmly in their seats during a crash.

Despite several automakers using these advanced restraint systems in the front seats, Consumer Reports and IIHS, report that less than half of all new vehicles include advanced restraint systems in the rear seats.

Why Didn't Automakers Install Advanced Seat Restraints in both the Front and Back Seats at the Same Time?

While not the proven suspect, many vehicle safety advocates suspect that automakers left rear seat safety behind simply because there were and are no federal requirements to do so.

The National Highway Safety Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the branch of the federal government that sets the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), which dictate what vehicle manufacturers/producers must include in all vehicles sold to American consumers.

NHTSA began using crash-test dummies in the back seats as part of its 5-Star Safety Rating Program in 2019. However, the use of these dummies is limited and only so researchers can (emphasis added) "assess the nature and severity of injuries to rear passengers, and allow the industry to develop new technologies aimed at increasing the safety of everyone on board." They do not encourage automakers to use existing front-seat safety features in the back-seat too. Additionally, these tests have yet to result in any new federal standards or adjustments to existing standards.

So in an effort to encourage more rear-seat safety systems, two non-profit organizations are now scoring new vehicles and conducting crash tests based on rear-seat passenger safety.

Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's (IIHS) Crash Tests

The IIHS released its first crash ratings for "a rear-seated dummy in its moderate frontal overlap crash test" in December 2022.

IIHS Hybrid III crash-test dummy that "submarined" (slid down) during an off-set frontal collision

The new IIHS test uses a Hybrid III crash-test dummy that represents a small adult or a 12-year-old child sitting in a rear window seat and "focuses on the dummy’s potential for head, neck, chest, and thigh injuries; head contact with the vehicle interior; and the potential for seat belts to move from proper belt placement to higher injury risk areas [like the stomach] on the dummy."

To earn a good rating, the sensors in the dummy cannot show "an excessive risk of injury to the head, neck, chest, abdomen, or thigh," and requires that the video footage of the crash and greasepaint on the dummy’s head confirm that the seatbelt and headrest prevented the dummy's head from hitting the vehicle interior, coming too close to the front seatback, and also prevented the dummy’s body from sliding down beneath the lap belt.

Consumer Reports Rear-Seat Crash Ratings

Another non-profit organization, Consumer Reports, began its rear-seat crash safety examinations in 2021. It looks for the "specific safety concerns that are unique to back-seat passengers" and reports if a vehicle includes "proven safety features that can protect older kids and adult occupants as well."

A portion of Consumer Reports' rear-seat safety features scores.

Consumer Reports has six main categories for its rear seat safety ratings:

  1. Car-seat fit: How easy it is to properly install child seats, LATCH accessibility, and how many seats can fit in the second row. Consumer Reports also evaluates the "vehicle owner’s manual to ensure that key information is available and easy to follow."
  2. Booster-seat use: "How easy it is to fit a booster seat, including whether it blocks access to the belt in an adjacent seat, whether it stays in place, how easy it is for kids to buckle themselves in, and whether the rear head restraint interferes with installation."
  3. Rear-occupant alert: Systems that remind drivers that a rear door has been opened before or during a trip. More advanced systems can also sense the presence of someone in the rear seat when the car is locked.
  4. Rear-seat minders: Warnings that a rear-seat occupant is unbuckled to encourage rear belt use.
  5. Advanced rear restraints: "Seat-belt pretensioners, which pull the seat belt tighter at the beginning of a crash, and load limiters, which let the seat belt spool out a little bit of slack to reduce the force the belt applies to the occupant’s chest."
  6. Rear head restraints: If a vehicle "makes it more difficult to sit in a rear seat without an appropriate head restraint."

Increased Knowledge of Backseat Safety Gives Injury Victims Options Outside of Waiting for New Regulations

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "It's great that watchdogs have identified a problem, some manufacturers are making improvements to make backseats safer, and the government may issue regulations mandating safer backseats someday, but what do I do in the meantime?" If you're just looking for a safer vehicle, looking at reports from IIHS and Consumer Reports is a good place to start. They'll inform you which manufacturers are improving safety without waiting for the government to act and which carmakers are putting out the same stuff they've been selling for decades.

Of course, if some manufacturers make safer backseats, it follows that others are putting out a more dangerous product. This means that some people will sustain unnecessary injuries, or even die, simply because a manufacturer isn't keeping up with the latest, safest designs. What are people who find themselves in these situations to do?

Fortunately, the law provides a remedy for such people. Even when there are no government mandates, carmakers still owe a duty to consumers to put out a product that is as safe as technologically and economically possible. The law doesn't require carmakers to put professional racing quality safety systems into vehicles, but if another manufacturer is adding $20 seatbelt pretensioners to rear seats, it's hard for a carmaker that doesn't to say it's not their fault if a consumer is injured because they chose to skimp on such a cheap part.

In these instances, rather than lamenting that the industry or government didn't act in time to prevent their injury, victims may be able to pursue a product liability claim for their losses. They can argue that the manufacturer failed the take common-sense steps to make the car as safe as it could have been, and this resulted in their injuries.

Pursuing such a lawsuit not only lets victims recover losses they've sustained due to substandard safety features, but lawsuits also impose costs, which in turn motivate automakers to improve vehicle safety. The whole reason some manufacturers skimp on making simple, relatively inexpensive safety improvements in the first place is that they don't feel that the benefits justify the modest costs. Raising the costs changes their thinking.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they do their part to ensure that the same thing that happened to them doesn't happen to someone else.