October 3, 2003

Head restraints improved but need to be adjusted properly

Arlington, Virginia – The designs of head restraints in an increasing number of passenger vehicles are improving so that many occupants are better protected from whiplash injury in rear-end crashes, says the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The IIHS began rating the geometry of head restraints in 1995, finding only 3 percent of vehicles had good head restraints while those in 82 percent of new passenger vehicles were poor. Now these proportions have changed – in the 2003 model year 45 percent of passenger vehicles had head restraints rated good. At the same time, the percentage of 2003 model vehicles with poor restraints had dropped to 10.

“It used to be that unless you were short you’d have trouble finding a vehicle with head restraints that extended high enough to protect you. Now automakers are making improvements so that in many vehicles even taller people can position the head restraints where they need to be to protect the neck from being injured in a rear-end crash,” says Institute chief operating officer Adrian Lund.

A well-designed restraint, in concert with the seatback, can reduce the risk of whiplash injury by reducing the differential motion of an occupant’s head and torso in a rear-end crash. The necessary first step toward accomplishing this is a head restraint that’s positioned high and as close to the back of the head as possible. Head restraints with poor geometry cannot be positioned this way for many occupants, so they cannot begin to prevent whiplash injuries.

Even as automakers improve head restraint geometry, many motorists aren’t reaping the full benefits. The restraints in about four of every five passenger vehicles have to be manually adjusted upward to protect many occupants. But such restraints often aren’t adjusted. They’re left in the lowest position, where they cannot provide many occupants with any protection against whiplash in rear-end crashes.

Institute researchers observed the positions of driver head restraints in more than 7,000 passenger vehicles at intersections in the Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, Virginia, areas. When the restraints were positioned at or above drivers’ ears, they were assumed to be high enough to protect the neck from whiplash in rear impacts. Across both locations, 60 percent of the observed head restraints of all types were high enough to provide protection. Among the adjustable designs that had been left in the unadjusted (lowest) position, fewer than half (48 percent) reached drivers’ ears.

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