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Status Report, Vol. 38, No. 9 | September 25, 2003 Subscribe

Many head restraints aren't properly adjusted

Even as automakers improve head restraint geometry, many motorists aren't reaping the full benefits. The restraints in about 4 of every 5 passenger vehicles have to be manually adjusted upward to protect many occupants. However, such restraints often aren't adjusted. They're left in the lowest position, where they cannot provide many occupants with any protection against whiplash in rear-end crashes.

Institute researchers observed the positions of head restraints in more than 7,000 passenger vehicles at intersections in the Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, Virginia, areas. When the restraints were positioned at or above drivers' ears, they were assumed to be high enough to protect the neck from whiplash in rear impacts. Across both locations, 60 percent of the observed restraints of all types were as high as the ears. Among the adjustable designs that had been left in the unadjusted (lowest) position, fewer than half (48 percent) reached drivers' ears.

Seventy-eight percent of the observed head restraints were adjustable designs, and among these about 1 in 3 had been adjusted upward.

More men than women were observed with restraints positioned too low for effective protection. The problem was worse in pickups than in cars and SUVs. It was worse in vehicles built by companies headquartered in the United States than in vehicles from manufacturers located elsewhere.

Percentage of head restraints positioned at or above drivers' ears

Overall: 60%
By restraint type:
83% adjustable restraint (adjusted upward)
48% adjustable restraint (unadjusted)
63% fixed head restraint
By gender of occupant:
44%  men
76% women
By vehicle type:
61% cars and minivans
61% SUVs
45% pickup trucks
Head restraints are improving

When the Institute began rating head restraints in 1995, only 3 percent of vehicles had good ones. By 2003, that number was up to 45 percent.

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