Automakers need to upgrade rear-seat safety, IIHS says

Automakers must do more to protect back-seat passengers from death and serious injury in severe crashes, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says.

The organization, funded by insurance companies, studied 117 crashes where back-seat occupants were killed or seriously injured. In those accidents, IIHS says, 22 injuries, and 17 of 37 fatalities, resulted from chest trauma.

The IIHS said Thursday it is using data from front crashes that result in injuries to back-seat passengers to develop a new front crash test that evaluates crash protection for both front- and rear-seat passengers. Test crashes are being conducted this year.

IIHS is urging automakers to deploy some of the same safety technologies used for front-seat passengers in the rear of vehicles. Two items IIHS cited are seat-belt pretensioners, which tighten around the body at impact, and force limiters, which allow the belt webbing to unwind slightly as the forward motion of a body pulls against the belt in a collision.

“This is a big reason why force limiters usually go hand in hand with crash tensioners,” said Jessica Jermakian, an IIHS lead researcher “With a crash tensioner, a person is held firmly against the seat from the beginning of the crash, so a slight loosening of the belt from the force limiter isn’t a big problem.”

Another way automakers can improve rear-seat occupant safety, IIHS says, is to equip vehicles with seat-belt airbags. They were pioneered by Ford in 2011 and are now used on Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Additional airbags that deploy from the roof and prevent a rear-seat occupant from smashing into the back of the front seat could also reduce injuries, IIHS says.

“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,” IIHS President David Harkey said. “Manufacturers have put a lot of work into improving protection for drivers and front-seat passengers. Our moderate overlap front crash test and, more recently, our driver-side and passenger-side small overlap front tests are a big reason why. We hope a new evaluation will spur similar progress in the back seat.”

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