Soft, comfortable, contoured – yes … but are they safe? While not typically considered a safety feature, a poorly designed automobile seat can cause devastating injuries in an accident. Most often, seat defects cause serious injuries in rear-end collisions. Because these collisions are so common, safety advocates argue that vehicle seats should be “the first line of defense against injury to occupants.”Seatback failure can cause the seat occupant to be thrown backwards, suffering head, neck and spinal injuries. It can also cause a vehicle’s occupant to be thrown through the back window or the crushing of an infant in a rear-seated car seat. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported 1,747 deaths and nearly half million injuries in rear-end collisions in 2001. While not known how many are due to seat failure or defect, data suggests that seat failures are common. A study by the Los Angeles Times of 72 rear-end collisions where the front seat failed concluded that the rear passengers were 25 times more likely to be injured because of the seat in front of them collapsing.
The Standard for Seats
Many believe that the major roadblock in protecting vehicle occupants from unsafe seats is the current standard for seat strength. The current standard, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 207, was adopted in 1968 and has never been upgraded. The standard requires that seat be able to withstand an impact of 270 foot-pounds.There are several problems with this standard. In surprising contrast, seat belt standards require much more – the ability to withstand 6,000 pounds of force without failing. Additionally, the standard seat testing is static — essentially hitting the seat with a weight to measure how much force it can take before it collapses. The current testing does not attempt to simulate real-world crashes nor does it utilize dummies.
The low federal standard has been blamed for deaths and injuries in rear-end collision in which the seat collapses. Jorie Andrade was paralyzed in a rear-end collision when her seat failed. In her lawsuit against the vehicle manufacturer, Andrade introduced evidence that an ordinary beach chair was “plenty strong enough to pass the test” set forth by the FMVSS 207. Evidence shows that auto manufacturers have known of the dangers of weak seats. Sue Bailey from the NHTSA stated, “I would like to see manufacturers make changes based on their own research, and their own information and not have to wait for the oversight that we may provide.”
Poor Seat Strength Is Especially Dangerous to Children
In addition to collapsing seats causing serious injuries to the passenger in that seat, the effect that a collapse can have on a child seated behind that seat is catastrophic. The collapse of a front seat is a leading danger for children seated in the backseat, and the seat can fail rearward and then “rebound into its original position in less than a second.” While traveling with his family and stopped at a red light, Kevin Gleason’s car was rear-ended at about 20 miles per hour. Mr. Gleason’s wife stated, “I fully expected everyone to be fine because it felt like we were pushed.” Mr. Gleason’s seatback, however, broke and his body flew into his daughter seated behind him. She was killed because of that impact.
Alternatives for Safer Seats
Manufacturers and designers of seats have argued over whether rigid seats or yielding seats are safer for vehicle occupants. Some engineers for GM have argued that stiffer, or more “rigid” seats, would actually increase connective tissue neck injuries from whiplash.They argued that since most of these collisions are low-speed, that strengthening seat backs would only cause more whiplash injuries.These arguments persisted despite the fact that in 1972 scientists at the University of Michigan conducted a study which concluded that injuries in rear-end collisions could be reduced if head displacement and motion was minimized.
Nonetheless, GM and many other manufacturers began designing seats referred to as “yielding seats.” These seats are designed to “yield” or break backwards in a rear-end collision to allegedly protect the occupant better. Many of these types of seats as designed, however, place occupants at risk when they fail rearward uncontrollably in rear impacts when the impact involves a change in speed or velocity of over 15 miles per hour. Internal GM documents introduced during a trial stated, “survival of front-seat occupants largely depends on front seat structure, which should maintain the passengers in an upright, seated position.” Also, there were documents indicating the necessity of an “exceptionally rigid seat posture”; both of which conflict with the position that so-called “yielding” seats are safer for occupants. Evidence shows that rigid seat designs are safer for passengers, while yielding seats, which are designed to collapse, have caused serious injuries and deaths.
Litigation due to Poor Seat Performance
There have been numerous lawsuits alleging defects and reasonable alternatives for seats that collapsed, causing serious injuries. These lawsuits arise because car manufacturers have an “obligation to produce and sell motor vehicles that are safe and not defective.”
Debra Buongiovanni was a passenger in a vehicle that was rear ended. The driver was okay, but after the impact, he found Debra lying flat on her back, half-way into the backseat, paralyzed because of the accident. The driver’s seat did not also collapse because the rear part of the car came forward and prevented the driver seat from collapsing, but the same did not happen for her seat. Debra Buongiovanni brought her case against GM for the design of her seat. The jury found in her favor, finding that (1) the federal standard is not a realistic test of seat performance, and (2) that in rear-end collision, seats should be designed to provide “sufficient occupant retention and biomechanical interaction to minimize the risk of serious injury.”
As consumers become more aware of the dangers in their vehicles’ seats, litigation will continue. Although many blame the poor federal standard, others point out that manufacturers should take into account the data regarding poor seat strength and make changes for safety on their own. The injuries because of a seat failure can be catastrophic for the passenger of that seat as well as the passenger seated behind the collapsed seat. With rear-end collisions being the most common accidents, change must be made and seats must be strengthened to protect the lives of vehicle occupants.
 Id. (detailing the study done in California that projected 1,800 back passengers have died from 1988 to 1997 because of seat failures).
 Car Seat Safety Rules Questioned, CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2000/10/26/eveningnews/main244421.shtml (accessed Aug. 11, 2008).
 Susan E. Lister, Kids in the Backseat: Are Children in the Rear Seat Safe? Does the Rear-Seat Structure Protect Them? How About a Vehicle’s Seat-Belt System? The possibilities for injury seem endless, but safety should never be an option, Trial, Vol. 41 No. 2, Pg. 36 (7) (Feb. 1, 2005).
 Larry E. Cohen, Conspiracy of Silence: Hidden Seat Back Hazards: Collapsing Seat Backs were a Dangerous and Outdated Design, and GM Knew it. Internal Documents Reveal Why the Automaker Took So Long to Come Up With a Safer Seat, Trial, Vol. 40, Pg 40 (5) (March 1, 2004).
 Larry E. Cohen, Safety: The Impact of Unsafe Design, Trial, Vol. 34, Pg. 35 (5) (Feb. 1, 1998).