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

How head restraint geometry is evaluated

Institute researchers assign head restraint ratings based on an international protocol published by the Research Council for Automobile Repairs (RCAR). This protocol is a slightly modified version of the one the Institute has been using since 1995.

Under the protocol, head restraints are evaluated based on two criteria. The first is the distance down from the top of the head of an average-size male to the top of the restraint. A head restraint should be at least as high as the head's center of gravity, or about 3.5 inches below the top of an occupant's head.

The second criterion is backset, the distance from the back of an average-size male's head to the front of the restraint. Backsets of more than about 4 inches have been associated with increased symptoms of neck injury in crashes.

Each head restraint is classified into one of four geometric zones—good, acceptable, marginal, or poor—according to height and backset. Marginal restraints have the minimum height necessary to protect an average-size male from whiplash injury. Acceptable and good restraints are high enough to protect taller occupants as well as people of average height and shorter. Good and acceptable head restraints also have smaller backsets, which benefit people of all heights.

The rating for a fixed head restraint is straightforward. The zone into which its height and backset place it also defines its rating. Rating adjustable head restraints that don't lock in their adjusted positions is equally straightforward — the rating is defined by the zone for height and backset in the down and/or rear position. For adjustable restraints that lock in position when adjusted, ratings are based on the midpoint of the best (highest and closest) and worst (lowest and farthest) positions in relation to an average-size male.

A proposed upgrade to the U.S. standard covering head restraints would impose new geometric requirements and bring federal mandates in line with RCAR ratings for a good design (see diagram).

Head restraint geometry: RCAR ratings compared with current and proposed U.S. standards

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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