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New Car Seats Prevent Whiplash

Innovations coincide with U.S. plans for better seat construction

TUESDAY, Oct. 22, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- New headrest technology in automobile seats can reduce whiplash injuries by 40 to 50 percent, according to a study released today.

The findings represent an important development for the auto industry, since whiplash injuries are the most common in car accidents and one of the most costly. An estimated 800,000 such injuries are reported in the United States every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Whiplash cases cost insurers about $7 billion annually, representing one-quarter of all claims from auto accidents, says Adrian Lund, a co-author of the study and chief operating officer of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"If you can reduce that by just 10 or 20 percent, that's a huge savings for insurance companies and policyholders," he says.

In the study, the institute examined 2,641 insurance liability claims for rear-end crashes between 2000 and 2001. The records came from the institute's three largest sponsors: Nationwide, Progressive and State Farm insurance companies.

Researchers looked at particular automobile models to see how they performed in the crashes before and after the seat innovations. To make the comparisons more accurate, they excluded car types that underwent major redesigns during that period.

Saab, General Motors and Nissan were among the companies that designed new seats with active head restraints, allowing the headrest to move up and meet the head as the torso sinks into the seat during impact from rear-end collisions. Those improvements, in general, led to 43 percent fewer claims, the researchers found.

Meanwhile, Ford and Mercury models merely changed the position of the headrest so it would better protect the head from flying backward during accidents. That change led to an 18 percent decrease in injury claims.

The best performing seat was made by Volvo. That seat included a specially designed hinge allowing the seat to move backward on impact to lessen forward momentum of the torso. Claims dropped by 49 percent for that model. A similar design by Toyota, however, which allows the body to sink further into the seat on impact, showed an increase in claims. In both cases, though, there were not enough cases to make the findings definitive, Lund says.

"Auto safety is an evolution, so manufactures are consistently trying to improve on certain products," says Scott Schmidt, manager of Vehicle Safety Regulation for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "We've made strides in recent years in understanding the mechanics of a neck injury."

A number of innovations have come together at the same time, leading to the development of so many different seats, he says. New crash dummies can measure whiplash damage precisely, allowing engineers to understand the mechanics of the injury.

"Safety is more and more of a selling issue. People are taking safety issues more and more to heart than they used to," Schmidt says.

Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began revising its standards on headrests for the first time since 1969. The proposal should lead to new regulations soon.

"This study will probably be looked at as part of the rulemaking," says Liz Neblett, a spokeswoman for the agency.

What To Do

To read the federal proposal to change the regulations for headrests in cars, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For more information about whiplash, visit the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

SOURCES: Adrian Lund, Ph.D., co-author of the study, and chief operating officer, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va.; Scott Schmidt, manager of vehicle safety regulation, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Washington, D.C.; Liz Neblett, spokeswoman, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
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