person upset at scene of car accident

It may come as a surprise, but the front seat may be the safest place to be in a head-on crash. Because of automotive safety innovations such as front airbags and more sophisticated seat-belt restraints, it may be safer to be seated in the front of a car during a head-on collision, an auto safety group says.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says its study suggests that more advanced restraint systems are needed in the back seat of cars. Until that happens, the implication is that, as USA Today suggests, if you are sitting in the back seat you could be at more risk of suffering serious or fatal injuries in a head-on collision than someone sitting in the front.

In a head-on collision, front-seat occupants benefit from airbags and seat belts that tighten immediately before a collision but allow enough space to mitigate injury. In the rear, there are no front airbags, and the seat belts generally lack crash tensioners and force limiters. The force of a crash can cause back-seat passengers to collide with the vehicle interior and, though they are helpful, seat belts without force limiters can inflict chest injuries.

Regardless of where you are sitting in a vehicle, if you are injured in a crash due to the negligence of another person, you may be entitled to seek compensation for your medical bills and other accident-related losses.

Less Focus On Back-Seat Safety in Automobiles

IIHS researchers used two national databases to identify 117 crashes in which rear-seat occupants were killed or seriously injured. The most common type of injury, found in 22 of the injured occupants and 17 of the 37 fatalities, was to the chest.

Of the fatal cases, most were considered survivable, meaning there was sufficient space in the vehicle for the passenger after the crash, the IIHS says.

“Automakers have done a great job at improving restraint systems for drivers and front-seat passengers,” IIHS President David Harkey told USA Today. However, he said automakers had paid less attention to the safety of back-seat passengers.

Harkey said the issue of back-seat safety is of growing importance as the use of ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft increases and more people regularly ride in the back of passenger cars.

Is the Front Seat or Back Seat Safer?

While the IIHS study suggests passengers may be safer in the front seats of vehicles during an accident, experts continue to recommend that young children be strapped into car seats in the back and not in the front, where powerful airbags pose the threat of injury.

The IIHS says its study supports the reliability of properly installed child safety seats in rear seats. “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 would not have made a difference,” IIHS Senior Research Engineer Jessica Jermakian said.

“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.”

Most older passengers in the study suffered chest injuries, suggesting that restraints in the rear didn’t perform as well as the ones in the front. An alternative to equipping rear seat belts with force limiters is inflatable seat belts, which Ford and Mercedes-Benz offer, to better distribute impact forces across the torso and chest.

The next most common injury was head injuries, typically caused by smashing into the backs of front seats or other parts of the vehicle interior. This threat could be lessened by seat belts with crash tensioners, which hold vehicle occupants firmly against the seat from the beginning of the crash.

Auto manufacturers also might find a way to equip rear seats with frontal airbags, deploying from the roof. To date, that hasn’t been done in any production vehicle, IIHS says.

IIHS says developing a crash test that evaluates rear-seat protection will prompt automakers to figure out what combination of technologies works best.

What’s the Safest Seat in the Car?

The new study contradicts previous research. Older studies say that you are better off in the back seat and, in fact, the dreaded middle-back “hump” seat is the safest place to be in a crash.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo’s Center for Transportation Injury Research (CenTIR) said in 2006 that passengers sitting in the middle of the back seat have a much larger “crush zone” in a side-impact crash than passengers sitting on the side nearer the crash. The crush zone is an area of the car designed to collapse in an effort to absorb some of the impact from a collision.

In a rollover crash, there is “potentially” less rotational force exerted on the middle seat passenger than on those in the window seats, the CenTIR researchers said.

Among the study’s findings was that back-seat passengers who wore seatbelts were 2.4 to 3.2 times more likely to survive a crash than their unbelted back-seat companions.

The study also found that the average age of rear-seat passengers was 20 years, while middle back-seat passengers were only 15.4 years old on average, confirming that younger and smaller passengers are typically assigned the hump-seat position.

A 2014 study by IIHS and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found that occupants of the back seat were safer in crashes in older vehicles, but that the trend reversed for newer vehicles — model year 2007 and later — that were involved in accidents. This, again, was due to advances in safety for front-seat passengers.

“The risk of fatal injury for rear occupants is similar across all of the model years we examined. Instead, the disparity reflects the fact that the front seat is getting safer,” Anne McCartt, the Institute’s senior vice president of research and one of the authors of the study, said.

In all cases, the use of restraints — seat belts and child-appropriate car seats — was the best way car occupants could protect themselves or their children in case of a car accident.

If you have been seriously injured in an accident in South Carolina caused by another motorist, our personal injury attorneys at Joye Law Firm are available to review the details of your crash and discuss your legal rights. Our dedicated attorneys handle cases on a contingency fee basis. You will not owe a legal fee unless we obtain money for you through a negotiated settlement or jury award. Call today to learn how we can help.

About the Author

Mark Joye is the Head of the Litigation Department at the Joye Law Firm. A Board-Certified Trial Advocate with nearly 30 years of litigation experience, he currently serves on the Board of Governors for the American Association for Justice and is a past president of the South Carolina Association for Justice. In a recent trial, Joye headed a trial team that secured $17 million for a family killed in a tractor-trailer accident.

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