Here is the biggest automotive defect injuries story you’ve never heard of. Seventeen children have been killed in accidents involving collapsing seat backs over the past 15 years, and practically no one knows about it, nor has anyone done much of anything about it. For perspective, the infamous Takata airbags have taken fewer lives—ten—as of January, 2016. An investigative report released in March, 2016, done by CBS News, identified over 100 people, many of them children, who have been severely injured or killed because of seat back failures since 1989.
The Story of Taylor Warner
In 2010, sixteen-month-old Taylor Warner was sitting in her car seat behind her father when their Honda Odyssey was rear-ended at highway speed. Upon impact, her father’s seat back broke after collapsing, hitting Taylor in the face and killing her. After the accident, her father, crying as he spoke, commented, “And it was all because of some stupid car that we thought was the safest thing we could get for our family to protect them.”
Crash tests have proved that one of the things that can happen when a seat back collapses is the driver is launched backwards, slamming into the person in the back seat. This means that drivers can also be injured when their heads hit the back seat after their seat back collapses. A seventy-year-old female ended up paralyzed after her minivan’s seat broke when the vehicle was hit from behind.
The Story of Jesse Rivera, Jr.
Seven-year-old Jesse Rivera, Jr., was left with permanent brain damage after the driver’s seat broke during a rear-ender accident in San Antonio, Texas. Jesse’s father, who was driving, was thrown headfirst into his son. While the father is now alright, Jesse, now eleven, will need care for the rest of his life.
The Riveras sued the car’s manufacturer, Audi, and received a verdict of over $124.5 million. It’s sad to think that all this misery came about because of a problem that, as some car companies admit, would cost only a dollar or two to repair.
What Has—and Has Not—Been Done
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states it has investigated the issue, but because it characterizes these kinds of accidents as “rare,” they claim it is difficult to upgrade the standard needed to strengthen the seat backs. In fact, the NHTSA hasn’t reviewed changes to the standard in 12 years—since 2004.
At least three automakers, on their own, have since gone beyond the NHTSA standard and made their seat backs stronger to guard against failure. Notably, they are Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Volvo.
But that’s it. That’s all that has been done to fix a problem that has killed more people than Takata air bags. And so the risks to our children and other loved ones continue.