Study shows the back seat may not be the safest place for your child in a front-end collision

Passengers in the back seat don’t have the benefit of front-mounted airbags, and rear seatbelts are less efficient.

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By Paul A. Eisenstein

Given the chance to pick your seat, you’ll be more likely to survive a car crash if you're riding up front, according to a new study.

While car manufacturers have done a lot to improve the safety of front-seat occupants, they have not gone nearly as far in protecting those seated in the rear, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"It’s not that the rear seat has become less safe, it’s that the front seat has become more safe over time," said IIHS David President Harkey in a new report. “We hope a new evaluation will spur similar progress in the back seat.”

Automakers have added an array of active and passive safety technologies to new vehicles in recent decades, with much of that aimed at preventing crashes. That includes technology electronic stability control and forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking.

Other developments are meant to improve the odds that passengers will survive if an accident does occur. Among the most effective of these passive systems are airbags and seat belts, devices credited with saving tens of thousands of lives.

Under federal law, front seat occupants must be protected by frontal airbags, and manufacturers have added a variety of other airbag systems that activate during side impacts and rollovers. But most of these systems are focused on front-seat occupants. Worse, the IIHS study also found that the seat belts used for rear-seat occupants can actually cause injuries — or worse — in aggressive frontal collisions.

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The insurance industry trade group studied 117 front-end crashes in which rear-seat occupants aged 6 or older were killed even though they were wearing seat belts — backing that up with its own crash tests. While collisions involving fatal head injuries were generally not considered survivable, the organization concluded that the majority of fatalities involving chest injuries could have been avoided with improved vehicle design and the use of better safety equipment.

“The fact that our sample had mostly survivable crashes tells us that we need to do a better job restraining adults and older children in the back seat,” said IIHS Senior Research Engineer Jessica Jermakian, the lead author of the new report.

Occupants up front have a number of devices helping protect them in a frontal crash, the IIHS noted, with airbags triggering within milliseconds of a collision taking place. Then, a vehicle’s seat belts come into play, ensuring front-seat occupants don’t strike the steering wheel or instrument panel.

Rear-seat occupants don’t have the benefit of front-mounted airbags. On top of that, the IIHS noted that rear seatbelts are far less likely to use pre-tensioners that automatically tighten up when a crash begins. By cinching down, a passenger’s body is less likely to build up momentum or strike a fixed object, such as the back of another seat. Rear seatbelts also are less likely to use force limiters that, when a crash is severe, can help reduce chest loads by allowing the belt’s webbing to stretch slightly.

"Kids generally use a booster seat to achieve proper belt fit until as old as 12. We recommend children stay in the back seat until at least this age," said Joe Young, a spokesperson for the IIHS.

Ford is one of a handful of automakers that has equipped several vehicle lines with special seatbelts that build airbags into the webbing of rear seatbelts. These are designed to offer protection similar to that of airbags built into a vehicle’s steering wheel and instrument panel.

While suggesting that rear seat belts could be improved in several ways, the IIHS has avoided making specific recommendations for improving rear occupant safety.

“We’re confident that vehicle manufacturers can find a way to solve this puzzle in the back seat just as they were able to do in the front,” said Harkey.

Though the organization has no direct authority to order changes in vehicle design, unlike the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the IIHS has strongly influenced the industry over the years.

Earlier in the decade, it began highlighting the dangers posed by what are known as “small overlap” crashes, like those that occur when one vehicle clips the corner of another as they pass on a narrow road, or when a vehicle strikes a pole along the edge of its bumper. Most manufacturers now incorporate overlap protection in their designs, and the IIHS is clearly hoping to get the industry to address rear seat safety with the release of this latest study.