What Is the Government Doing to Prevent Vehicle Seatback Failures? Not Much.

Natalie KirbyAugust 17, 2022 6 minutes

For years automakers and vehicle safety organizations have gone back and forth about vehicle seat design and seatback failure.

Automakers maintain that “yielding seats” limit injuries in low-speed rear impacts, and that if vehicle seats were stiffer, those low-speed rear accidents would result in more severe injuries. The problem is, that this argument originated in the 1950s when seats had short flexible backs and ineffective headrests (if any at all).

Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which sets vehicle standards, claims that due to a limited budget they do not test vehicles for rear impacts and "must concentrate [NHTSA's] ratings on front and side-impact crashes that are responsible for the highest percentage of deaths and serious injuries."

However, in today's vehicles, seats are substantially different, and it is foreseeable that a vehicle will at some point be in a rear impact collision. These weak "yielding" seatbacks do not yield in a controlled manner, and they become an extremely dangerous scenario for the occupant in the failed seatback and a passenger sitting behind them.

Some Background Information

What is Seatback Failure?

In its most basic sense, seatback failure is when the back of an occupied vehicle seat suddenly collapses backward. Digging a little deeper, seatback failure typically only occurs during a rear impact collision and happens when the seat, pushing forward against the weight of a person in the seat, collapses. This failure can throw the seat's occupant head-first into the backseat or out the rear window of the vehicle, and this also endangers anyone behind a collapsed seat.

You can easily imagine how dangerous and severe this scenario is for both the seat occupant and the occupant behind the seat. A front seat occupant's head, neck, and body can slam against the vehicle’s interior or slam into a back seat occupant. Similarly, if a rear seatback fails, an occupant can eject out of the vehicle through the rear window. No matter where an occupant is located, if a seatback fails there will likely be devastating injuries, maybe even death.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), "there were 35,766 fatal motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2020 in which 38,824 deaths occurred." Yet the NHTSA does not publish specific data regarding rear impact collisions. Again, NHTSA reports they do not have the funding to dedicate to researching/investigating rear collisions.

What is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration?

The NHTSA is a federal government agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT), established by the US Congress to "help reduce the number of deaths, injuries, and economic losses resulting from motor vehicle crashes on the Nation's highways." As such, the agency functions as both a source of information and as an investigative body.

Most consumers know NHTSA through their 5-Star Safety Rating system or the crash tests they conduct.

The 5-Star Safety Ratings System

Vehicles earn a star rating through NHTSA's 5-Star Safety Ratings, also known as the New Car Assessment Program, which NHTSA designed to give consumers confidence in the quality of a vehicle. NHTSA's assessment program crash tests new vehicles yearly to ensure auto manufacturers are adhering to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), also set by NHTSA.

The NHTSA divides the FMVSS into three categories: crash avoidance, crashworthiness, and post-crash survivability. Specific FMVSS (like FMVSS 207) dictate requirements for specific parts of a vehicle and specific crash scenarios.

However, many auto safety organizations express frustration and concerns with the 5-Star Safety Rating System. The main criticism seems to be that the tests are too easy and every vehicle built today will pass the test with flying colors. This has led to what safety organizations refer to as star-flation. If every vehicle is given 5 stars, how can consumers know what really is the safest?

The auto safety experts recommend looking at the NHTSA crash data directly and learning about the specific crash test standards that are most important to the consumer. Although, they recommend that last bit because they hold that many of the standards are in serious need of an update, and the crash standard currently taking the most heat is FMVSS 207, Seating Systems.

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards 207, Seating Systems

FMVSS 207, "Seating Systems," a crashworthiness assessment, focuses specifically on the strength and durability of a vehicle's seatback.

"Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 207, "Seating Systems," establishes requirements for seats, their attachment assemblies, and their installation, to minimize the possibility of failure as a result of forces on the seat in a vehicle impact."

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Laboratory Procedure For FMVSS 207 Seating Systems

Today the automotive industry largely designs vehicles that exceed FMVSS 207's requirements, and this would be great news if vehicle safety organizations respected and agreed with the standard. Instead, many critics have said this test is laughable and that the test is sorely outdated, as NHTSA designed and set this standard in 1967.

For a bit of perspective, if Ford hired an engineer out of college on the day the NHTSA implemented the seatback test, that engineer would have retired 12 years ago. That's how antiquated this test is.

How Strong Must a Car's Seat Be to Pass Government Safety Tests?

FMVSS 207 simply requires that a vehicle seat withstands pressure equal to twenty times its own weight when that pressure is applied in forward, rearward, and longitudinal directions.

It is a static, or non-moving, test that does not account for the weight of an occupant or the g-forces present in a crash. Furthermore, critics argue that a seatback should provide the same level of protection to its occupant as a seatbelt does, and that simply applying rearward force does not accurately reflect any rear impact collision.

News reporting organizations, like FairWarning and The Center for Auto Safety, have scooped up these critiques and often repeat that even a banquet chair or lawn chair can pass FMVSS 207's requirements. For example, this lawn chair, currently on Wal-Mart's website, weighs 8.1 lbs, and twenty times the weight of that lawn chair is only 162 lbs. Yet, the chair can support a weight capacity of 225 lbs.

Petition for Improved Safety Tests

Over the years various safety organizations have been petitioning the US Congress, the NHTSA, and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to update FMVSS's requirements and to test vehicle seats while occupied.

Specifically, ARCCA: Expert Forensic, Scientific and Engineering Solutions, which focuses "on the design and testing of occupant seating and restraint systems in all types of vehicles in order to improve occupant safety," first petitioned NHTSA in 1989 and then again in 2015 (emphasis added).

"In its current form, unfortunately, FMVSS 207 is nothing more than a static standard for the empty
seat structure, without any consideration at all to what happens to the user during a rear-end crash. In essence, FMVSS 207 requires the seatback to withstand a rearward moment value of only 3,300
inch-pounds. This absolutely minimal requirement is barely adequate to accommodate the normal
wear and tear on the seat from regular driving, and does not address the seat strength required in even insignificant rear-end crashes. To put this into perspective, we have tested lawn chairs and cardboard seats, as ridiculous as that sounds, which have met or exceeded the 3,300 inch-pound requirement.

Furthermore, the only dynamic test called for in FMVSS 207 is an acceleration test of 20 G, and that again is only concerned with components of the unoccupied seat not releasing under that acceleration level.

PETITION to Amend 49 CFR 571.207, FMVSS 207-Seating Systems

These petitions, and growing consumer concern, eventually lead two US Senators and a Member of Congress to officially petition NHTSA in November 2016, six years ago, for a stronger seatback design. Yet still, there has been no change. Most recently the same two senators introduced the bill US S1413 on 4/28/2021, and other congress members introduced a companion bill, US HR4025, on 6/21/21.

Auto Safety Experts Hope Congressional Interest will Make a Difference.

While vehicle safety organizations are eager to see where these bills will go, NHTSA has been asked many times by many different players to address seatbacks. However, time and time again they accept the suggestions and make no changes.

In an interview with Eli Wolfe, a writer for FairWarning.org, Alan Cantor, the founder of ARCCA: Expert Forensic, Scientific and Engineering Solutions, expressed his frustrations.

“When we talk to NHTSA it’s like talking to the wall,” Cantor said. Yet when he gave a presentation to agency staff about seatback issues a few years ago, Cantor recalled, several members of the audience asked him what cars they should buy for their families.

“It astounded me,” [Alan Cantor] said.

Safety Advocates Assail Lack of Federal Action on Weak Vehicle Seats by Eli Wolfe

Furthermore, many vehicle safety experts have expressed concerns that any alteration(s) NHTSA implements will still fall short of the needed requirements. They highlight how automotive designers are already exceeding FMVSS 207, and those better than required seats still fail.

Even so, auto safety experts are cautiously pleased with the congressional interest in seatback failure. Volvo and BMW seats are already reportedly designed for rearward collisions, so watchdogs aren't even asking automakers to invent new technology. Instead, they want a standard that forces automakers to use the best designs already available.

Will the Government Finally Bring Seatback Standards into the 21st Century?

As this task seems easy and affordable, we certainly hope to see better seatback standards soon. The NHTSA recently just mandated twenty car manufacturers, (Audi, BMW, Hyundai/Genesis, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota/Lexus, Volkswagen, Volvo, etc.) to install automatic emergency braking systems in 95% of all their new vehicles by September 2022. Maybe this is a sign that standards are getting better, or maybe it is a sign our government only wants to show consumers that they care by requiring the latest and flashiest technology. Only time will tell.

As NHTSA has been ignoring seatback strength for over 45 years, the best we can do now is make sure, as motorists who may be stuck riding in unsafe seats, we can recognize seatback failure and hold the auto manufacturers accountable through court.