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Head Restraints | Misused safety technology can cut disability.

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Head Restraints

Head restraints get a ho-hum rating on a vehicle's sexy options scale, and most consumers never take the time to adjust them properly. But those little squares on the top of the front passenger seats are an important safety technology that can save passengers from whiplash injuries that leave one million Americans with chronic life-changing injuries every year.

The chances of sustaining a whiplash injury are three times greater than a fatality or an injury requiring extensive hospitalization, according to Department of Transportation statistics. And according to experts at the Spinal Injury Foundation, between 25 and 40 percent of whiplash victims will have chronic symptoms from damage to joints, discs, ligaments and nerves. In one recent study, one-third of patients, 17 years after their whiplash injury, were still disabled. There are 12 million whiplash injuries reported every year and more than $29 billion is spent on healthcare or litigation related to the injury.

Time to Adjust.

It only takes a few minutes to position the new generation of adjustable head restraints so they can do their job. But most consumers don't know what the right adjustment is. A head restraint that is too low actually increases injury because the head pivots over the top in a rear-end crash. Adjusting the head restraint up or down until the center of the head restraint meets the center of the back of the head (about 3.5 inches from the crown of the head), will protect passengers in a rear end collision. It should be no farther than four fingers widths from the head while riding in the vehicle.

According to the Center for Research into Automotive Safety and Health, riding with the head an additional two inches beyond the optimum range magnifies the crash forces on the head by 300 percent. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety recommends those who cannot ride with their head the optimum distance from the head restraint consider purchasing an aftermarket head restraint add-on which will bring the head closer to the restraint.

In four out of five passenger vehicles on today's market the head restraints must be manually adjusted. In a recent study, the IIHS found that 40 percent of the head restraints on the road are not properly adjusted. IIHS has been tracking the efficacy of head restraints since 1995 when only three percent of vehicles had head restraints deemed good by the Institute and 82 percent got a poor rating. In 2003 model-year vehicles, 45 percent of passenger-vehicle head restraints got a good rating and the poor rating plunged to 10 percent. (Comprehensive ratings are available on the IIHS web site: www.IIHS.org

Ahead of Time.

Automakers are far ahead of the government in designing safer head restraints. The government has not changed its head restraint standards since 1969. Although the government began a standards upgrade in 2001, there is still no final rule. In the absence of federal action, automakers are moving ahead with advanced head restraints that actively position themselves closer to occupants' heads or adjust seat stiffness to control torso movement in rear-end crashes. IIHS studies show that these designs have been found to reduce neck injuries in real world crashes.

Vehicles equipped with the active head restraint systems had a reduction of 43 percent in injury claim rates compared with old designs on the same vehicles according to a 2002 IIHS study. Using injury statistics the study showed a 43 percent decrease in whiplash injuries in the Buick LeSabre, Infiniti QX4, Infiniti Q45, Pontiac Bonneville, Saab 9-3 and Saab 9-5, all equipped with active restraint systems. Volvo's WHIPS system decreased injuries in the Volvo S70 by 49 percent.

Saab's system uses a mechanism in the seatback, which, when an occupant's torso sinks back into the seat during a rear-end crash, pushes the head restraint up and toward the back of the head. Some General Motors and Nissan models are also equipped with this system. Volvo and Toyota designed their seatbacks to yield in rear-end crashes in order to reduce the forward acceleration of occupants' torsos. Toyota's seat design allows an occupant's body to sink farther into the seatback during a rear impact. Volvo's system includes a specially designed hinge at the bottom of the seatback allowing it to move rearward to reduce the forward torso acceleration.

The Spinal Injury Foundation is mounting an international public awareness campaign-the Save Your Neck Program, which will educate drivers and passengers on how to correctly position head restraints to prevent injuries in rear-end collisions. The campaign offers local car checkpoints and information centers providing demonstrations on the correct head restraint adjustments.

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