The Hidden Danger of Riding in the Back Seat

Recent collisions have exposed car seat back failures that are especially dangerous to children

front seat passenger being thrown into backseat
Photo: CBS News

Everyone with even half an ear open to conventional wisdom knows: the back seat is the safest place for small children. Airbags can kill tiny passengers, and passengers in the back have an extra buffer between them and any objects the vehicle meets in a head-on collision. But recent lawsuits and petitions to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—the government’s own auto safety enforcer—show that our conventional wisdom needs serious updating—as do the safety standards most automakers follow.

The NHTSA hasn’t updated safety standards for front seats since 1967, meaning auto manufacturers can get high safety marks based on seriously outdated standards. How outdated? A series of tests done by CBS News demonstrate that front seat passengers might as well be sitting in flimsy lawn chairs, or even cardboard or a banquet chair, for all the good those cushy, sturdy-seeming seats do for a vehicle’s inhabitants during a collision. All of these examples, incidentally, pass the NHTSA’s front seat safety standard. Crash test videos show that in the event of a rear-end collision, “the front driver and passenger seats of many vehicles can collapse backwards, launching the occupants into the back seat area,” reports CBS News. Crash-test videos demonstrating seat back failure are, in a word, terrifying.

Drivers and front seat passengers can become seriously injured due to seat back failure, but the biggest danger is for young children in the back seat who can be seriously injured or killed when seat backs collapse.


Which Cars Have Had Seat Back Failure?

It seems many vehicle makes and models, from low end to high, have seat back failure in rear-end collisions serious enough to kill or seriously injure back seat passengers.

Audi—nobody’s idea of a budget car brand—has been ordered by a Texas jury to pay the family of Jesse Rivera Jr., who was left brain damaged and paralyzed from injuries stemming from seat back failure at age seven, $124.5 million in damages. The jury, CBS News explains, found that Jesse’s injuries resulted from “gross negligence” on the part of Audi. When their car was hit, Jesse’s father’s seat broke and he was launched head first into the back seat—into his son.

It’s important to note that in this case, Audi was found 55 percent responsible, the driver who rear-ended Jesse’s father was found 25 percent responsible, and Jesse’s father—who was not wearing a seat belt and did not have Jesse in a booster seat—was found 20 percent responsible, CBS News writes.

Passengers can be killed due to seat back failure even if they are wearing seat belts.

From Jesse’s case we can see that wearing seat belts and having young children properly restrained and in age-appropriate booster or car seats matters in a collision—but even with those precautions, passengers can still be killed due to the failure of automakers to ensure their front seats do not collapse. Jesse’s brother was seated next to him in the back seat, behind an unoccupied front seat, and was uninjured in the collision.

Another important note: Audi’s seats met or exceeded the NHTSA safety standards, but the jury still ruled against them and Jesse is still permanently brain damaged and paralyzed.

Seats and steering wheel interior of car

What Are the Dangers of Riding in the Back Seat?

During a deposition for Jesse Rivera Jr.’s case, an Audi engineer explained that the front seats were designed to collapse and that the knees of a back seat passenger would support the front seat, CBS News reports. Yes, you heard that right: some cars are purposely designed with the intention of using the back seat passenger as a protection against the front seat catapulting into the back. Take a minute to picture a young child’s knees cushioning the blow as their parents are launched into the back seat, and you might be motivated to write your legislator to demand changes in safety standards.

“Nearly every major American, Japanese and Korean automaker has seen similar cases [of seat back failure] recently,” and “Internal documents show carmakers and the NHTSA have known about the potential for seat back collapses for decades,” says CBS News.  

The NHTSA insists cases like these are rare, and thus updating safety standards is, “very challenging,” Says CBS News. Interestingly, the NHTSA stopped reviewing changes to the standards in 2004. CBS News’ investigation found more than 100 people in the U.S. who had been severely injured or killed in what appeared to be seat back failures since 1989. The majority of victims were children.

The problem of seat back failure would cost, “only a couple dollars to fix,” according to CBS News’s auto industry sources.

We think it’s time for the NHTSA to conduct a serious review and update of their safety standards.

It would only cost 'a couple dollars' to fix seat back failure in most cars.

Little boy in car looking out rainy window

Beyond the NHTSA Standards: What Automobile Manufacturers Are Doing to Address Seat Back Failure

A few automakers are actively addressing the problem of seat back failure, even though their vehicle models already meet the paltry NHTSA standards. Experts interviewed by CBS News identified at least three automakers that are voluntarily strengthening their seats—BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo. We reached out to all three and heard back from two:

A spokesperson for Mercedes-Benz told us, “Safety is a core value of Mercedes-Benz. Every model has to pass a variety of test configurations. Generally, it is vital to design sufficient energy absorption zones along with a stiff and stable passenger compartment in order to minimize the risks for the occupants in a rear end collision. Along with this basic vehicle design strategy, our seats are designed to fulfill and even exceed all legal requirements.” Mercedes-Benz went on to say that their vehicles are designed with rear impact protections: in the event that one of their cars is hit from behind, seat belt “pretensioners” are activated for both front seat and back seat passengers, which minimizes the loads on the seat backs.

BMW was a little more guarded, stating that they can’t comment on ongoing technological developments, nor do they comment on their competitors. When asked what they are doing to address the issue of seat back failure in rear-end collisions, a BMW spokesperson told us, “Seats are an integral part of the BMW whole vehicle safety concept and seat back strength is an important function for occupant restraint in rear impacts.” Further, BMW said their seats are developed with strength six times over the U.S. minimum. Perhaps most importantly: “We know of no field reports with seat back failure in our vehicles,” they said.

Important Safety Updates for Children

Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of death for children in the U.S., reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parents and caretakers do everything the can to keep kids safe and follow standards that seem to be getting stronger and stronger: keep kids in booster seats up to 57 inches, keep car seats rear-facing up to age two (as opposed to just age one), and now parents know to never put their children in car seats with bulky winter coats on.

But safety advocates are calling for parents to be made aware of another big update to car safety: small children should be seated in the middle of the back seat, and if there’s more than one tiny person on board, the second child should be seated behind an empty front seat or the lighter-weight front passenger.

The best way drivers can protect themselves and their passengers is to make sure everyone in the vehicle always buckles their seat belts and that young children are in seated in the back, in properly-installed height-and weight appropriate car seats or booster seats.


Do you think auto manufacturers are doing all they should to keep kids (and adults) safe in vehicles?