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Notes From The Road

Head Restraints: Comfort Vs. Safety
By Mac Demere/

New Regulations
The issue is believed to be so important that the federal government, through NHTSA, issued new regulations. In essence, the regulations say that front head restraints must be no more than 2.2 inches behind the occupants’ heads. They must also be two inches or more higher than the previous requirements for head restraints. NHTSA says these are similar to European regulations. The front-seat headrests in more than three-quarters of passenger vehicles built after September 2009 must meet the new rules. The IIHS has its own size requirements, but these are less restrictive than the government’s.
Those who complain about the restraints take no issue with the dimensional requirements: They point out that the restraints touch their heads or even push their neck forward. Those with grievances would be happy to have the restraints even a half-inch behind their heads. In addition to size regulations, the government requires automakers to certify that their head restraints pass a dynamic test. Also, the IIHS conducts its own dynamic tests that attempt to simulate the forces of a stopped vehicle hit by one of the same weight going 20 mph. Neither this, nor the government’s test, involves actually crashing cars. Instead, a seat is mounted on a sled that is accelerated.
“If a head restraint isn't behind and close to the back of an occupant's head, it can't prevent a ‘whiplash’ injury in a rear-end collision,” says the IIHS website. “The point of our test is to make sure [seats/head restraints] will protect the neck in rear crashes,” said Zuby. “We’re not trying to make them uncomfortable.” A look at the IIHS results of vehicles we’ve tested recently found that almost every one with annoying head restraints got the top grade in IIHS tests, but not all with top grades that we’ve driven caused us pain.
Consumer Safety Importance
From the point of the car companies, it’s critical to achieve the IIHS’ “good” rating and, ideally, have their vehicles receive the IIHS “Best Safety Pick” award. Ford quote: ”Many consumers place high emphasis on this rating. In some vehicle categories, the IIHS award is the price of admission: Vehicles that don’t win the award are not even considered by some buyers. The head restraints are positioned to ensure top scores in IIHS and NHTSA testing.”
Far more complaints are heard from drivers than front-seat passengers. Government regulations and IIHS standards are the same for both, but IIHS tests only the driver’s seat. Visual inspections show that the offending driver’s side restraints are usually closer to the head and angled more toward the front than those on the front passenger seat.
So, what can you do about uncomfortable head restraints? First, before you purchase a vehicle, make certain you and its other intended drivers are comfortable in its seat for long periods. Consider renting a version of the car before you buy. Next, raising the head restraint to its highest position or reclining the seatback a bit more makes some vehicles more comfortable to some drivers. And that’s about it. Removing the head restraints is the equivalent of not wearing a seatbelt. Bending the head restraint posts or replacing the restraint with one from an older model is similar to modifying the seatbelt: It’s unlikely to protect you the way the car-company engineers, regulators and interest groups intended.
“If there is widespread modification to head restraints, we have a problem,” said Zuby. Providing hope for the future are active head restraints. Current active systems use the energy of the crash to move the head restraint toward the motorist’s head. This reduces how far the driver’s head snaps rearward in a crash and, thus, the damage to the neck. In current vehicles, active head restraints aren’t necessarily anywhere close to the allowable two-plus inches behind the driver’s head. In our test, closely cropped hair brushed the active restraint in the Saab 9-3. At least the driver’s neck wasn’t bent forward. The bottom line: research a vehicle’s head restraint safety ratings, and make sure the head restraints are properly positioned AND you are comfortable.

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