Safety Advocates Say Fatal Car Seat Failures Are ‘Public Health Crisis’

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — Safety advocates say automakers and regulators have acted with “criminal” negligence in failing to remedy a long-acknowledged auto safety flaw that watchdogs say has played a role in hundreds of deaths, creating a “public health crisis.”

At issue are car seats that malfunction and collapse backward when a car is rear-ended. The impact of the crash and collapsing seat can cripple or kill drivers, as well as passengers in the back seat, in many cases, children.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director at the Center For Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., said about 64 adults a year die or suffer serious injuries from seat collapse, and about 50 children a year die due to collapsing seats.

“There is a huge public health crisis out here and we have to get answers,” he said. “We have to find a solution, because we can’t continue to kill 50 children every year in the rear seats of cars.”

Collapsing seats have been the focus of scrutiny for decades, though experts say remarkably little has been done to address the issue.

CBS2’s Randy Paige first investigated seat collapse in 2002, and revisited the issue in March, finding it to be as prevalent as ever.

Paul Sheridan was in charge of the Chrysler mini-van safety team at the time of a 1992 “60 Minutes” report that exposed the issue to the general public.

He says he called for an internal investigation into seat strength shortly after that piece aired, but his efforts were met with resistance from the company.

“I was told to retrieve and destroy the meeting minutes,” he said. “They dismantled my safety team and said our mission had been fulfilled. That on its face was ludicrous.”

Sheridan said Chrysler also tried to hide evidence of its faulty seats from the public. He said Chrysler and the NHTSA withheld crash test footage that clearly showed seats collapsing in the event of a rear-end collision. (The video was recently made public in a civil trial.)

“It was videotape that demonstrated that the seat would fail in minor rear end collisions leading to injury and death,” Sheridan said.

Automakers routinely point out that their seats meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard for seat strength, sometimes referred to by its number,”207.”

But safety watchdogs claim the standard is archaic and has not been updated since it was created in the 1970s.

“You can buy a lawn chair at a retailer and apply the 207 seat standard and it will pass,” Sheridan said. “The only thing that’s changed over the years is how many people have died, and that number keeps climbing.”

“If a lawn chair can pass the standard … and it can, then the manufacturers should be ashamed of themselves for using that as an excuse,” said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator. “Never should one ever fail. And if they have one that fails, then they have failed the American public … I think it’s really criminal, actually.”

Asked for comment, the NHTSA sent CBS2 the same statement it sent at the time of the March report.

“Rear-impact crashes account for roughly 3 percent of all traffic fatalities,” the statement said, in part. “Fatal crashes in which seat failure occurs and results in injury or death are even less common.”

There’s a greater sense of urgency among those who have been injured or lost loved ones in crashes involving seat collapse.

“Something needs to change, or else this will continue to happen,” said Jacklyn Romine, who was paralyzed in a 2006 Pasadena crash in which her seat collapsed.

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