Washington — Automakers need to develop better safety-restraints for backseat passengers, according to a study of real-world crashes conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The IIHS, which represents the insurance industry, looked at 117 crashes in which belted rear-seat occupants age 6 or older were killed or seriously injured in front-end crashes. It found a third of those passengers suffered chest injuries. The organization said nine of the injured passengers and 18 of those who were killed suffered head injuries.

The institute noted that in crashes involving front-seat passengers, seat belts typically tighten around the occupants due to embedded devices called crash tensioners. It said rear seat belts generally lack crash tensioners and force limiters.

Additionally, the organization said most cars have front air bags that deploy quickly in front seats. Rear-seat passengers are usually protected in side crashes by side air bags, but there are no front airbags.

The IIHS said it plans to develop a new crash test that will evaluate occupant protection in the rear as well as the front.

“Manufacturers have put a lot of work into improving protection for drivers and front-seat passengers," IIHS President David Harkey said in a statement. A big reason for that, he said, was due to stringent crash-testing looking at drivers and front-seat passengers.

“We hope a new evaluation will spur similar progress in the back seat,” Harkey said.

The IIHS said most of the fatal crashes it studied involving passengers who suffered chest injuries were considered survivable, meaning there was sufficient space in the vehicle for the passenger after the crash. By comparison, most of the crashes involving fatal head injuries occurred were considered unsurvivable. 

“Child restraints are so effective that when young children in properly used restraints die, it’s usually because the crash was so severe that improving the restraints wouldn’t have made a difference,” said IIHS Senior Research Engineer Jessica Jermakian, the lead author of the new paper. “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.”

IIHS said is not yet recommending any particular solutions for reducing the likelihood of injuries or fatalities for backseat passengers. Instead, the organization said it believes developing a crash test that grades specific models on rear-seat protection will prompt automakers to figure out how to make improvements using combinations of available new technologies. 

“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,” Harkey said. 

Read or Share this story: