LEGAL GUIDE
Written by attorney Brett Ashley Emison | Jun 3, 2010

Did You Know That Reclining In Your Seat Can Be Deadly?

Did you know that tilting your vehicle's seat back to rest or take a nap will dramatically increase the risk of serious injury or death in an auto accident? Even though most consumers and passengers do not understand these risks, auto makers (like Ford, GM, Chrysler and Toyota) have known of this danger for more than 40 years!!

What Is The Risk? If your car seat is reclined, a three-point restraint (lap and shoulder seat belt) becomes esentially useless because the shoulder harness moves away from the passenger. Seat belts do not work -- and, in fact, can make injuries worse -- if they are not properly designed (proper "seat belt geometry") or not properly worn. However, most passengers simply assume they will be safe if they are buckled up. Few people understand that the more space between the seat belt and the passenger's chest increases the risk of death or serious injury caused when your body either slams against the seat belt itself or "submarines" and slides beneath the seat belt. Auto makers have known of these risks since at least the 1964 Stapp Car Crash Conference. However, car manufacturers have lobbied Congress to prevent any regulation and there are still no Federal Motor Vehicle Saftey Standards (FMVSS) -- federal minimum standards -- governing this danger. Because there are no federal minimum standards, car makers have refused to provide warnings or alter the vehicle to eliminate or even reduce this hazard.

Emily Bazelon of Slate.com wrote about these dangers after suffering her own injury in 2007. Amy's article discussed a Langdon & Emison client and the auto industry's knowledge of the danger:

Federal transportation safety officials started worrying about the risks of reclining car seats back in 1988. Since then, the medical literature has bolstered the case for concern. Yet somehow, car manufacturers have never been required to put warning labels on car seats like, for example, the ones that detail the dangers of air bags.

What Can Be Done? There are several easy and inexpensive solutions for auto makers to eliminate or reduce the risk of harm from reclined seats: (1) Car makers could prevent seats from reclining beyond a pre-determined angle while the vehicle is moving. This is the safest, but most controversial choice. This solution eliminates the risk but also elimintaes consumer choice. In addition, car makers argue that it is difficult to assign a predetermined "safe" reclining angle because of the difference in human body types. (2) Car makers could design the seat belt system into the seat itself -- what is known as "integrated seat belts" or "all belts to seat" (ABTS). These systems incorporate the seat belt into the seat design to create a much safer and effective "seat belt geometry." While not completely eliminating the danger, these systems keep the seat belt placed on the body no matter where the passenger reclines the seat back. ABTS systems are much safer than restraint systems in which the seat belt is mounted to the B-pillar (as shown in the photograph above). (3) The cheapest and simplest solution is to warn occupants of reclined seat danger so that the occupant has the ability to decide for herself if she wishes to trade safety for comfort. Studies have shown that warnings will both inform and remind passengers of potential dangers. A warning costs virtually nothing to implement and will save lives. (4) Car makers could also incorporate a visible or audible warning -- just like they already do with seat belt warning lights and chimes. Takada (a major seat belt manufacturer) patented just such a device almost 20 years ago. If GM, Ford, Chrysler or Toyota will warn you to use your seat belt, why won't they warn you to keep your seat belt effective?

As the Slate.com article pointed out -- the incredible lobbying power of the car makers has prevented any government regulation of this safety defect:

"Kent Emison, the lawyer who wrote about this for Trial, which is published by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now called the Amercian Association for Justice), won a $59 million verdict against Toyota on behalf of a man who had both legs amputated below the knee after an accident in which his seat was reclined. Emison points out that along with warning labels, there are other ways for automakers to reduce the danger of reclining seats. They could install a warning bell, or make it impossible to put the car in drive unless all the seats are upright. But he says that NHTSA won't require any safety measures, even a label, because of the lobbying power of the car manufacturers.

Learn more at our safety blog and become a fan of Langdon & Emison on Facebook.

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