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Highway Safety Regulators Propose to Make Those Vehicle Head Restraints Measure Up


Those little pillows that top most car seats these days are head restraints, not headrests. And, although they are supposed to help prevent whiplash injuries, few cars made have adequate ones.

But a proposed federal regulation could change that.

Even a car that passes federal and insurance industry crash tests with flying colors may still fall short on safety. Chances are its head restraints are rated as "poor," "marginal" or merely "acceptable" by the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which began testing them in 1995.

Only 5%--one in 20--of 1999 model cars, pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles tested got the highest rating of "good" for head-restraint design. About a third of the 186 models tested were equipped with head restraints the institute rated as poor performers.

Poorly designed head restraints can increase the risk of whiplash, the painful neck injury that occurs most often in a rear-end collision.

In the milliseconds after impact, the force involved causes violent movement of the head and neck, sometimes causing the neck to mimic the snapping back-and-forth lash of a whip.

Properly designed, head restraints can ease the threat of such injuries. But although head restraints have been required in passenger cars sold in the United States since 1969, whiplash remains a serious problem.

Whiplash-related claims cost the insurance industry about $7 billion a year, according to Adrian Lund, a spokesman for the institute, which is supported by the auto insurance industry. About 66% of all medical injury claims filed with auto insurers involve neck sprains, he added.

To help solve the problem, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is proposing an upgrade of current standards for head restraints in passenger cars, light multipurpose vehicles, trucks and buses.

"It will raise the standard to that required in Europe," Lund said.

The new rules would establish a higher minimum height requirement for the restraints and add a requirement limiting the distance between a person's head and the restraint, what the industry calls the "backset."

The greater this distance, the more a seat occupant's head and neck can move in a rear-end collision and the higher the risk of whiplash injury. The proposal also establishes new strength requirements for head restraints and sets up other criteria to improve them.

Comments on the proposals, which can be read online at, may be filed until March 5. If the proposals are adopted, manufacturers will have three years to comply.

Drivers and passengers who experience whiplash often complain of neck pain, stiffness, dizziness, shoulder pain, headaches and other symptoms, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

"It's treated with time and rest," said Dr. Peter Slabaugh, an orthopedic surgeon in Oakland. Cervical collars are still used to immobilize the neck, and anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy are often recommended.

"The vast majority of patients do recover," Slabaugh said. But it can take weeks, or months. If symptoms persist, there is often an underlying problem, such as degenerative changes, he said.

Already, some car makers are working to improve their head restraints.

Mentioned most often by experts as leaders in the field are Volvo and Saab.

In IIHS ratings since 1995, all Volvo models tested have received the highest "good" rating. The new Saab 9-3 and 9-5 models also received "good" ratings, while the older Saab 900 was rated "acceptable."

For a complete list of ratings by manufacturer, visit the IIHS Web site at Click on "Vehicle Ratings," scroll down and click on "Head restraint tests."

Even if your vehicle's head restraints are less than acceptable, you can do much to reduce the chances of whiplash injury, experts say, simply by properly adjusting the restraint, providing it is adjustable.

"The top of the restraint should be at least at the top of your ears," Lund said.

The restraint also should be positioned as close to the back of your head as possible. Distances of more than 4 inches have been associated with increased likelihood of neck injury in crashes, according to the institute. Its researchers also found that neck-injury claims rise as the height of the restraint in relation to the top of the seat occupant's head diminishes.

What about head-restraint bolsters--cushions sold over the Internet for about $25, that slip over existing restraints to improve comfort and, supposedly, safety? Pass on those, Lund advises. He says they have not been tested sufficiently to determine if they really help minimize whiplash.

Comments on the proposed new head-restraint standards can be mailed to Docket Management, Room PL-401, 400 7th Street, S.W., Washington, D.C., 20590, or submitted online at


Good Carma is a guide to automotive-related health and consumer issues. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at


Head Restraint Geometry

Knowing how to adjust your vehicle's head restraints can help prevent injury in the event of a rear-end collision. As the illustration shows, the backset should be no more than 3.5 inches and the distance from the top of the seat occupant's head to the top of the restraint no more than 3 inches.

Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety

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