Head Restraints: Comfort Vs. Safety

Are safer head restraints a pain in the neck?
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Car-oriented chat rooms are loaded with complaints about uncomfortable head restraints, which are often incorrectly called headrests, in new cars. No car company seems immune from criticism. Objections come from tall, average and short people. Both the traditional passive and "active" head restraints take hits. Here are a few actual opinions:

Common Complaints

“The front headrest points so forward that I get neck pain after just a few miles of driving.” — 2009 Volkswagen Jetta owner.

"Unless you enjoy your face aiming toward your crotch, you may not be able to find a comfortable position for the headrest or your head." - 2007 Subaru Forester owner.

"My only complaint is the front headrests are extremely uncomfortable. The headrests cause my head to lean forward all the time, and it's uncomfortable to lean back in the seat." - 2006 Range Rover Sport HSE owner.

The Brevity Award goes to this poster: "Dude, the new headrests suck."

Vehicles with uncomfortable head restraints often get top marks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Discomfort and Safety

In personal experience, we've found similar problems with nearly all vehicle brands. Yet far from every new model receives criticism from every motorist. We found no complaints whatsoever about many models. Many drivers apparently have no problems with vehicle head restraints that others gripe about endlessly. Only two clear patterns were revealed: Drivers complain more than passengers, and vehicles with uncomfortable head restraints often get top marks from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an insurance industry group.

A Ford spokesman said the company was "aware of the issue" and "working on solutions." An Acura representative also acknowledged the complaints. (We picked on these two brands because we'd recently experienced uncomfortable-for-us head restraints in their vehicles.) Spokespersons for both the U.S. government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and IIHS, said their organizations knew of the situation.

In the words of one Internet poster, "What's with these head restraints in many new cars?" It's a challenge to fit a fully accurate answer into a web article, but we'll try: In order to meet new government rules and get the critical-for-sales "Top Safety Pick" rating from the IIHS, vehicle makers are placing driver's-side restraints so close to the head that some motorists are uncomfortable. While it's easy to select a whipping boy, the government, industry groups and automakers all want motorists to be as safe as possible and none want them to be uncomfortable. Still, the combined result of government and industry is a large number of uncomfortable motorists and unhappy vehicle owners.

For Protection, Not Resting

"Some people are finding (the new restraints) uncomfortable," said David Zuby, senior vice-president for vehicle research for IIHS. "Our goal is to make sure head restraints provide protection in rear-end crashes." Zuby said the IIHS is reevaluating its test. Also, car companies are pondering the switch to the more-costly and usually less-uncomfortable active head restraints. Those looking for deeper understanding need to first realize that the devices are not "head rests," a place to lay your weary noggin on long drives. Instead, they're "head restraints," critical safety devices intended to prevent painful or even crippling neck injuries-called "whiplash"-in rear-end collisions. Whiplash and other neck injuries are the most frequently reported injuries in American insurance claims and cost insurance companies about $8.5 billion in claims every year, says the IIHS. (However, frauds may account for a third or more of the claims, says The Insurance Research Center.)

New Regulations

The issue is believed to be so important that the federal government, through NHTSA, issued new regulations. In essence, the regulations say that front head restraints must be no more than 2.2 inches behind the occupants' heads. They must also be two inches or more higher than the previous requirements for head restraints. NHTSA says these are similar to European regulations. The front-seat headrests in more than three-quarters of passenger vehicles built after September 2009 must meet the new rules. The IIHS has its own size requirements, but these are less restrictive than the government's.

Those who complain about the restraints take no issue with the dimensional requirements: They point out that the restraints touch their heads or even push their neck forward. Those with grievances would be happy to have the restraints even a half-inch behind their heads. In addition to size regulations, the government requires automakers to certify that their head restraints pass a dynamic test. Also, the IIHS conducts its own dynamic tests that attempt to simulate the forces of a stopped vehicle hit by one of the same weight going 20 mph. Neither this, nor the government's test, involves actually crashing cars. Instead, a seat is mounted on a sled that is accelerated.

"If a head restraint isn't behind and close to the back of an occupant's head, it can't prevent a `whiplash' injury in a rear-end collision," says the IIHS website. "The point of our test is to make sure [seats/head restraints] will protect the neck in rear crashes," said Zuby. "We're not trying to make them uncomfortable." A look at the IIHS results of vehicles we've tested recently found that almost every one with annoying head restraints got the top grade in IIHS tests, but not all with top grades that we've driven caused us pain.

Consumer Safety Importance

From the point of the car companies, it's critical to achieve the IIHS' "good" rating and, ideally, have their vehicles receive the IIHS "Best Safety Pick" award. Ford quote: "Many consumers place high emphasis on this rating. In some vehicle categories, the IIHS award is the price of admission: Vehicles that don't win the award are not even considered by some buyers. The head restraints are positioned to ensure top scores in IIHS and NHTSA testing."

Far more complaints are heard from drivers than front-seat passengers. Government regulations and IIHS standards are the same for both, but IIHS tests only the driver's seat. Visual inspections show that the offending driver's side restraints are usually closer to the head and angled more toward the front than those on the front passenger seat.

So, what can you do about uncomfortable head restraints? First, before you purchase a vehicle, make certain you and its other intended drivers are comfortable in its seat for long periods. Consider renting a version of the car before you buy. Next, raising the head restraint to its highest position or reclining the seatback a bit more makes some vehicles more comfortable to some drivers. And that's about it. Removing the head restraints is the equivalent of not wearing a seatbelt. Bending the head restraint posts or replacing the restraint with one from an older model is similar to modifying the seatbelt: It's unlikely to protect you the way the car-company engineers, regulators and interest groups intended. And don't ask anyone to do such modifications: You, or the car's other drivers or next owner, may sue them if there's an injury.

"If there is widespread modification to head restraints, we have a problem," said Zuby. Providing hope for the future are active head restraints. Current active systems use the energy of the crash to move the head restraint toward the motorist's head. This reduces how far the driver's head snaps rearward in a crash and, thus, the damage to the neck. In current vehicles, active head restraints aren't necessarily anywhere close to the allowable two-plus inches behind the driver's head. In our test, closely cropped hair brushed the active restraint in the Saab 9-3. At least the driver's neck wasn't bent forward. The bottom line: research a vehicle's head restraint safety ratings, and make sure the head restraints are properly positioned AND you are comfortable.

About the Author

Mac Demere is a writer, vehicle tester and race driver who competed in the NASCAR Southwest Tour and Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.

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