Recently a jury in Jacksonville, Florida awarded $16.9 million to a young college student who was rendered a paraplegic in a motor vehicle accident. The student was a belted passenger in a Ford Windstar who had reclined her seatback. During the trip, the Windstar was involved in a low impact collision. Because the student’s seat was reclined, the seatbelt did not hold her in place. As a result, this young college student was rendered a paraplegic in what was clearly a very minor accident.
Another jury in Maryland awarded $59 million to a belted passenger in a Toyota vehicle who was also riding with his seat reclined. The car was involved in a frontal collision. During the collision, the belted passenger flew forward at the time of the impact. It resulted in the amputation of both of the passenger’s legs. Both of these cases spotlight a very dangerous practice that automobile manufacturers have known about for decades – riding in a vehicle with your seat reclined can be deadly.
Take a minute and think how many times you have been in a car on a trip and have reclined your seat while wearing your seatbelt to take a nap. This is a very common practice. If a seatback is reclined, the common seatbelt becomes much less effective, if not completely useless, because the shoulder harness of the belt moves away from the body. People do not realize or understand that the more space between the seatbelt and an occupant’s chest, the greater risk of death or serious injury in an accident. That’s why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the automobile industry have to take action and prevent injuries and deaths in such situations.
Automobile manufacturers have been well aware of the dangers of reclining seats for nearly four decades. At a 1964 Stapp Car Crash Conference, two safety-equipment engineers presented a report analyzing the effect lap belts have on reclined-seat occupants. The report discussed sled testing in which the seatback was reclined almost fully. When the sled stopped suddenly, the test dummy submarined under the lap belt almost 10 inches, driving the belt into the dummy’s abdominal cavity. In 1988, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted a safety study in which one of the issues was the effect of reclining seatbacks. The NTSB examined 167 collisions involving passengers who had worn three-point restraints. The result showed that three-point restraints offered good protection only if worn properly. An occupant who wears a seatbelt while his seat is reclined is not “centered” in the belt, rendering the belt ineffective for spreading crash forces over the body.
The NTSB stated that the protection offered by any type of seatbelt is compromised when the seat is reclined, presenting a “potentially dangerous combination in a moving vehicle.” The NTSB noted that, “since vehicles had been marketed with reclining seats, most adults and children were tempted to combine belt use with a reclined seat.” The study concluded that, “at best, lap/shoulder belts, indeed, any type of seatbelt, offered reduced effectiveness when used with a reclined seat. At worst, a lap/shoulder belt in a reclined seat may be a potentially dangerous combination in a moving vehicle – proper fit is impossible.” Although some vehicle owner’s manuals warn of the dangers of reclined seatbacks in moving vehicles, the warnings do not state specifically what degree of recline is dangerous. Further, the NTSB pointed out that, because the manufacturers advertised their cars by showing a passenger in a reclined seat, while wearing a seatbelt, these advertisements undermine the already limited effectiveness of owner’s manuals warnings (especially if the warnings are unclear, as in advertising not to recline the seat “any more than as needed for comfort”).
The NTSB submitted safety recommendations to NHTSA based on the findings in the study. The report recommended that manufacturers limit the angle of inclination allowable in a reclining seat to no greater than the maximum angle that can safely be used in combination with a seatbelt. The report further requested that NHTSA determined to what degree a seatback could be reclined and still allow an occupant to be properly and safely restrained by a lap/shoulder belt combination. In March 1989, over 15 years ago, the NTSB stated that:
• Warnings and owner’s manuals are not effective for preventing passengers from misusing lap/shoulder belts and reclining seats;
• It is not known at what point the lap/shoulder belt becomes dangerous with reclined seats; and
• Testing is required to determine the safe limits of reclined seats.
NHTSA also noted that “it is likely that most people who ride with the seatback reclined are not aware of the associated risks; they are simply using the added comfort the reclining seatback affords.” In response to NHTSA’s initial position and NTSB’s findings, the auto manufacturers claim that the owner’s manuals effectively “discourage” the use of reclined seats while a vehicle is in motion, and that “common sense” indicates that an upright seat is safer than a reclined one. Clearly, the industry’s response was to blame the motoring public and ignore the problem.
It is shameful that the automobile industry has taken this position. There are ways for the industry to address this dangerous problem. A simple warning that points out the danger of reclining seats can be inexpensively incorporated into a vehicle design, and yet it would convey the needed information to alert the passengers of the danger. A warning label can be the first step towards educating the public. But a warning would be unnecessary if the industry would start designing its restraint system in such a manner to alleviate the problem. For example, GM has incorporated into some of its current vehicles, such as the Trailblazer, a seat design that mounts the seatbelt system within the seat itself. Known as the “all belts to seat,” this design allows the shoulder harness to stay in position even when the occupant reclines the seat. Another design incorporates an interlock within a vehicle’s gearshift, preventing the driver from putting the car in gear if a seatback is reclined. Interlocks are not yet used in any vehicles. Automakers could also add a device that would warn the vehicle passengers of the hazards of reclined seats. In fact, years ago, a major manufacturer of seatbelts patented a device that would give a visual or audible warning if a passenger were to recline his seat to a dangerous degree.
People are being needlessly injured and killed as a result of the automobile industry’s inaction on this subject. The industry knows that the motoring public does not understand or recognize the danger of reclining the seat while the vehicle is in motion. The industry knows that millions of families drive millions of miles on the road every year. The industry knows that the occupants in their vehicles will recline their seats to take naps, and by doing so, face great risk of serious injury or death in an accident. Yet, the automobile manufacturers turn a blind eye to this danger even though there are simple approaches they could take to educate the public and prevent such needless injuries and deaths each year.
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