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Head RestraintsNotes From The Road

Head Restraints: Comfort Vs. Safety
By Mac Demere/

Car-oriented chat rooms are loaded with complaints about uncomfortable head restraints, which are often incorrectly called headrests, in new cars. No car company seems immune from criticism. Objections come from tall, average and short people. Both the traditional passive and “active” head restraints take hits. Here are a few actual opinions:

Discomfort and Safety
In personal experience, we’ve found similar problems with nearly all vehicle brands. Yet far from every new model receives criticism from every motorist. We found no complaints whatsoever about many models. Many drivers apparently have no problems with vehicle head restraints that others gripe about endlessly. Only two clear patterns were revealed: Drivers complain more than passengers, and vehicles with uncomfortable head restraints often get top marks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an insurance industry group.
A Ford spokesman said the company was “aware of the issue” and “working on solutions.” An Acura representative also acknowledged the complaints. (We picked on these two brands because we’d recently experienced uncomfortable-for-us head restraints in their vehicles.) Spokespersons for both the U.S. government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and IIHS, said their organizations knew of the situation.
In the words of one Internet poster, “What's with these head restraints in many new cars?” It’s a challenge to fit a fully accurate answer into a web article, but we’ll try: In order to meet new government rules and get the critical-for-sales “Top Safety Pick” rating from the IIHS, vehicle makers are placing driver’s-side restraints so close to the head that some motorists are uncomfortable. While it’s easy to select a whipping boy, the government, industry groups and automakers all want motorists to be as safe as possible and none want them to be uncomfortable. Still, the combined result of government and industry is a large number of uncomfortable motorists and unhappy vehicle owners.
For Protection, Not Resting
“Some people are finding (the new restraints) uncomfortable,” said David Zuby, senior vice-president for vehicle research for IIHS. “Our goal is to make sure head restraints provide protection in rear-end crashes.” Zuby said the IIHS is reevaluating its test. Also, car companies are pondering the switch to the more-costly and usually less-uncomfortable active head restraints. Those looking for deeper understanding need to first realize that the devices are not “head rests,” a place to lay your weary noggin on long drives. Instead, they’re “head restraints,” critical safety devices intended to prevent painful or even crippling neck injuries—called “whiplash”—in rear-end collisions. Whiplash and other neck injuries are the most frequently reported injuries in American insurance claims and cost insurance companies about $8.5 billion in claims every year, says the IIHS. (However, frauds may account for a third or more of the claims, says The Insurance Research Center.)

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