LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — You may not see it coming because you are sitting in it. But if your car is rear-ended, it can be crippling for some drivers and deadly for rear passengers when the front seats collapse and are pushed into the back by the impact of a crash.

Children have been killed and front-seat drivers and passengers have suffered serious injuries. CBS2/KCAL9’s Randy Paige first brought attention to the problem in 2002. He revisited the issue this week and found that not much has been done to improve safety.

Jacklyn Romine was stopped at a red light on Lake Avenue in Pasadena on the night of Oct. 21, 2006. She was in the driver’s seat when a car rear-ended her.

“I was waiting at the red light. I looked up at my rear-view mirror. I saw lights coming towards me. They just never stopped,” Romine said.

A crash test demonstrates what some experts believe happened to her. The video shows the driver seat collapsing and slamming the dummy’s neck into the back seat.

“Once I was laying down, I couldn’t move,” Romine added. Her neck was broken. She is paralyzed for life. “I was very angry. I wanted to die.”

What happened to Romine only shows what can happen to adults when front seats collapse in accidents. When children are in the cars and in the back, the results can be even worse.

In 2011, 16-month-old Taylor Warner was killed when her father’s driver seat broke on impact in a rear-end collision and hit the toddler in the face.

In 2013, 1-year-old Eli Hastings suffered major facial injuries and bleeding to the brain after a multivehicle crash near Sacramento, where his mother was thrown into him while he was strapped in his car seat.

Then there’s the death of Crystal Butler. Paige interviewed the 7-year-old’s mother four years ago when he first reported about the collapsing car seats.

“We had an ambulance that was coming toward us. We pulled over to the side of the road, and we were struck from behind,” Butler said.

Stephanie Collins’ seat collapsed and her head slammed into her little girl. Fourteen years later, Collins says she can’t shake the image of what she saw when she turned around and saw Crystal in the back seat.

“Crystal had really large beautiful blue eyes. There was no blue in them, just black circles,” Collins cried. Her daughter died from massive internal bleeding.

“My child got turned into a human safety device, an airbag. She saved my life; it wasn’t supposed to be that way,” Collins whimpered.

When Paige spoke to structural engineer and accident investigator Ken Saczalski, he said the federal safety standard for seat-back strength was grossly inadequate.

Saczalski, who provides expert testimony in lawsuits against car manufacturers, now says nothing has changed since. He says car seats nowadays exceed the federal standard and are generally stronger than they were back in 2002. “But the real issue is they’re not reliably stronger all the time. Sometimes they could be adjusted and become weaker,” he said.

Saczalski says there is not much you can do to protect yourself if you are in the front seat because there is no way to know if your seat will collapse in a collision and the federal government doesn’t require automakers to test their crash worthiness in rear collisions.

But there are steps you can take to protect your children in the backseat. If there is no one sitting in the passenger seat, put your child behind the empty seat. If someone is in the passenger seat, put your kid behind the shortest, lightest person to give them the best chance of surviving a rear-end collision, according to Saczalski.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration responded to Paige with a statement explaining why the agency is not updating the seat strength standards:

“NHTSA has considered changes to its seating standards for years. The agency recognizes that the current standard is decades old, and it has received requests and formal petitions over the years to amend or strengthen the standard. In 2004, after several years of research and analysis, the agency formally terminated a rulemaking proceeding aimed at changing the standard. The agency did so for several reasons, but fundamentally the decision rested on the difficulty of providing data, as opposed to anecdotal evidence, for safety benefits of a change to the standard. This is an enormous challenge because the kind of high-impact rear-end crashes that are generally cited as justifying a change are relatively uncommon. For example, rear-impact crashes account for roughly 3 percent of all traffic fatalities; fatal crashes in which seat failure occurs and results in injury or death are even less common. And as you know, the agency is required to perform cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate net benefits for any regulatory change we would propose. Bottom line: The absence of data demonstrating real-world benefits meant the agency could not pursue a rulemaking.

Since that decision, the agency has engaged in a number of activities related to the seating standard. The agency issued an upgrade to its standard for head restraints that took full effect in model year 2011. We are also have engaged in research to develop injury criteria for a new rear-impact test dummy, known as BioRID. This dummy, significantly more capable than previous models used in rear-impact tests, could help the agency develop comprehensive proposals to improve rear-impact protection for the traveling public.  More recently, in late 2015, we were petitioned by ARCCA, Inc. and Mr. Kenneth Saczalski to revisit rulemaking on improving the seat back strength standard.  The agency has not made a determination on the disposition of those petitions.  In a separate but related effort, they agency also announced plans to include automatic emergency braking (AEB) in our New Car Assessment Program 5-star safety ratings.  AEB has the added potential of reducing the incidence and severity of rear impact crashes from occurring in the first place.”

Collins asks how can NHTSA say the real world doesn’t benefit enough by saving the lives of children like her daughter, Crystal, and protecting front-seat passengers like Romine from life-changing injuries.

The automakers who responded to the story said all of their car seats meet or exceed federal safety standards.

According to Saczalski, European automakers generally offer the best seats for protection in a rear-impact collisions such as Mercedes, BMW and Volvo. If you are on a budget, he recommends buying a used Volvo.

Lawsuits have been filed against the American and Japanese automakers.

Comments (29)