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Do rear facing car seats increase head injury risk? 

January 19, 2016 by Steven M. Gursten

One study shows rear-facing car seats do not adequately protect children in rear-end car accidents

rear facing car seat, image

How well does a child’s rear-facing car seat protect him or her from being injured in a rear-end car accident?

Maybe not as much as we’ve been led to believe.

The Washington Post’s Katherine Shaver reports that a study published in the October 2015 issue of the Journal of Traffic Injury Prevention suggests that “the potential for children in rear-facing car seats to hit their heads during rear-end crashes” and suffer head injuries such as concussions is much greater than was previously known.

Specifically, the study showed:

  • “[A]n infant-sized crash-test dummy registered serious head injuries when its rear-facing car seat pitched forward — toward the back of the vehicle — in rear-end crash tests.”
  • Test videos show the top of the car seat and the dummy’s exposed head being thrown into the back of the vehicle seat in which the car seat was attached.”
  • “The estimated head injuries were more severe, the study found, when the car seat was attached via the vehicle seat’s lower ‘LATCH’ anchors compared with seat belts.”

I was particularly interested in the study author’s comments about how the study revealed the injuries of a child in a rear-facing child seat may initially go undetected after a rear-end collision.

 As the study’s author told The Washington Post:

“One of the most concerning findings … was that even when the infant dummy’s head had hit the seat back, the car seat returned to the correct position. In a real crash, … an emergency first responder or parent might not realize that the child’s head had hit the seat back and might assume the crying child was merely upset. That could result in children not getting examined or treated for possible head injuries …”

I also found it significant – and reassuring given that we don’t have any alternatives immediately available – that the study’s author did not conclude that rear-facing car seats are per se dangerous and/or that their use should be discontinued. Instead, the study’s author “emphasized:”

 “[I]nfants and young children should remain in rear-facing car seats. The study didn’t conclude they’re unsafe … only that they could be made safer for rear-end crashes. … [I]n Sweden, top tethers from the car seats to the vehicle floor prevent rear-facing seats from tilting into vehicle seat backs. ‘We’ve made huge strides over the past several decades in child safety, but it doesn’t mean the job is done. We can do better.’”

What can be done to improve child car seat safety?

The Post article suggested that safety advocates may need to look outside the U.S. for answers to the problems brought to light by the study:

 “[T]he potential for rear-facing car seats to pitch children into the seat back has drawn attention in other countries and among some car seat manufacturers. Canada and some European countries have required car seats to limit ‘rebounding’ for years. Some manufacturers, such as Britax, offer an ‘anti-rebound bar’ for some seats, while others, such as Combi, provide for rear tether straps similar to those used in Sweden.”

Because of the safety implications of the study’s results, our attorneys will be following the issue as it develops. As an automobile accident attorney, the study raises a number of issues for cases I currently have in litigation, such as attempts by insurance defense lawyers and IME doctors to raise comparative fault allegations against parents, or an aggravation of injury claim for car accidents involving children in car seats. There are not enough facts to answer these issues at this time, but the study adds an important – and apparently overlooked – element to our ongoing discussion about the best way to keep our kids safe in cars. 

And as a parent and a father, that is the most important car seat safety issue of all.

To learn about Michigan’s child car seat law, please check out Michigan Auto Law’s blog posts:

What exactly is Michigan’s child car seat law? 

Police interpretation of Michigan’s existing car seat law 

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