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Neck Injuries Poised To Drop Thanks To New Law—And New Seats

October 27, 2009
2010 Chrysler Sebring sedan

2010 Chrysler Sebring sedan

If you consider safety one of the top priorities in your next new-car purchase—as you should—and are carefully combing through features and occupant protection ratings, you're in for a pleasant surprise: There are a lot more models designated Top Safety Picks this year from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Why? Although some models have been redesigned with stronger, more crash-resistant structures, improved side protection, and other features, along with electronic stability control (a requisite for the award), in a number of other models it was as simple as redesigning the seats.

The 2010 Chrysler Sebring and 2010 Dodge Avenger sedans, for instance, get a new seat design that raises these vehicles' overall rear protection rating to 'good,' from 'acceptable.' With the new seats, neck shear forces and neck tension in a rear impact are just a fraction of what they were with the old design. The simple solution: new seats that, most significantly place the headrest higher and closer to the typical occupant's head.

Chrysler isn't the only one. For 2009 and 2010, a number of automakers have been phasing in new seat designs. From the 2008 to the 2009 model, for instance, the Toyota Corolla went from an overall 'poor' score in the rear test to a 'good' result, with a force rating that went from 'high' to 'low'—indicating a much lower chance of whiplash or related neck or back injuries.

According to the IIHS, the overall rate of injuries is 13 percent lower for vehicles with 'good' rear ratings versus those with 'poor' ones, so looking back, this might be a pivotal period showing a significant drop in insurance claims, injuries, and perhaps deaths.

New federal head restraint rules, set back in 2004 but not requiring total compliance until next September, essentially require taller head restraints that are closer to the back of the occupant's head. Under the new rules, the space between the back of an occupant's head and the head restraint must be 2.2 inches or less.

But IIHS spokesman Russ Rader says that his group is also playing a part in getting these seat designs rolled out before the law requires it. "Part of what's driving it is that manufacturers have to earn 'good' ratings in the rear test in order to get the Top Safety Pick designation," says Russ Rader, spokesman for the IIHS, adding that automakers are using it as a competitive advantage.

The IIHS rear crash protection ratings are based on two categories of testing: first, on geometric measurements regarding how close the head restraint is to an average man's head; and secondly, on dynamic ratings that test the seat and head restraints on a sled, simulating a velocity change of 10 mph, which is like being in a stationary vehicle struck at 20 mph.

Over the next year, we'll also start seeing some changes to back seats, too. Phasing in beginning in September 2010—and required by September 2011—is a new federal requirement that rear-seat head restraints be mounted as high as 29.5 inches from the occupant's hip (the same height as for front-seat restraints)

Volvo S80 Anti-WhiplashSeat

Volvo S80 Anti-WhiplashSeat

The new seats might cost slightly more in some cases—especially the ones with active restraints that move upward and forward in an impact for better support—but it's nothing compared to the pain in the neck the injuries have proven to insurance companies and motorists. Neck injury is the most common injury reported under the two most common types of auto-injury insurance, according to Rader, and the annual cost amounts to $9 billion—one quarter of all accident-related injury claims.

Even considering the new seat design in the Sebring and Avenger, these two models still scored an 8 out of 10 for Safety in's Meta Review because of imperfect (four out of five) scores in a couple of federal ratings and because electronic stability control remains an option—even for top-of-the-line models. For more information on how safety measures up from model to model, within their respective classes, be sure to read the Safety tab of our full reviews and check out our expert editors' Bottom Line takes for any vehicle you're considering.

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