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New Headrests, Due in 2009, Won't Be Equally Safe

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page G02

Most components of cars and trucks sold in the United States are covered under more than 500 rules, regulations and amendments to Title 49, Chapter 301 of the U.S. Code -- the Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

The first of those rules, collectively known as the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, took effect March 1, 1967. It requires the installation of seat belts in passenger vehicles.

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The regulations mandate minimum standards new cars and trucks must meet to help provide basic safety for the U.S. motoring public. That is important to know in a traffic environment where the minimum may not be good enough.

Look at what are commonly called "headrests," covered under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 202. The standard has been on the books since Jan. 1, 1969 -- and it hasn't been modified since.

But the kinds and numbers of cars and trucks on American roads, and the annual mileage accumulated by them, have changed dramatically since then, as have the types and severity of crashes in which those vehicles are involved. The upshot, according to federal and auto insurance safety experts, is that most "headrests," as we have come to know them, are good for nothing.

They don't rest anything, primarily because that was never their intended purpose. They were, and are, supposed to help control the movement of vehicle occupants' heads in rear-end collisions, thus reducing the chances of debilitating neck whiplash injuries.

But relatively few cars nowadays -- eight out of 62 automobiles tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and other insurance groups last year -- have head-restraint systems that do a good job of protecting necks in crashes. Fifty-four of the vehicles tested received "poor" ratings in the insurers' examination. (For further details, check "Status Report," Nov. 20, 2004, at www.iihs.org).

Now, the perennially under-funded and under-staffed National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which enforces and oversees the implementation of federal auto safety rules, has decided it must do something. Auto manufacturers agree, and they have vowed to work with NHTSA and the insurers to come up with head restraints that actually do what they are supposed to do.

The manufacturers' compliance is a mixture of voluntarism and avarice. In truth, and contrary to conventional wisdom, most FMVSS rules are mere codifications of things the car companies had done and were doing in the first place.

Modern engine ignition systems, for example, did not come about because the government required them. They developed as customer satisfaction items. To wit: The ancient hand-crank ignition systems of the late 1800s and early 1900s tended to spring back with force, breaking hands and busting jaws. They were hard sells.

Today, there are no major car companies operating in the mistaken belief that consumers are not interested in safety. In the matter of head restraints, Swedish automakers Volvo and Saab began making significant improvements a decade ago, putting pressure on their competitors to do the same.

Rival General Motors Corp. partly responded by buying Saab Cars; and Ford Motor Co. did the same by taking over Volvo Cars. Put another way, the auto industry now has an investment interest in complying with FMVSS updates and in staying on the good side of the world's auto insurers.

NHTSA is requiring the installation of improved head restraints in all passenger vehicles, beginning in 2009. But it is important to note here that the agency does not dictate the kinds of devices that should be made. Instead, NHTSA sets minimum performance parameters. That means most head-restraint systems should be better than those that exist today; but it does not mean they all will be equal. Both the government and the auto insurance industry will have to come up with easily understandable rating systems to give consumers an idea of which head restraint works best in a given category of vehicles.

In general, auto insurers and NHTSA want the new restraints to be higher and closer to the head for passengers seated front and rear. "A head restraint with inadequate geometry cannot begin to protect many taller people from neck injury in rear-end crashes," the insurance institute says in its Jan. 31 "Status Report" on the matter.

But it will take more than rearranging head-restraint geometry to bring needed improvements, the report says. Manufacturers will have to reexamine the design of vehicle seats as well, making sure that the seats cannot rotate backward in a rear-end collision.

"A seat also has to allow an occupant to sink into it, moving the head closer to the restraint," the report says.

This column will keep an eye on those and other FMVSS developments. In the interim, you are hereby advised to pay closer attention to head-restraint design in your next vehicle purchase. The one you buy could save your neck.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company