SEATTLE – PEMCO Insurance CEO Stan McNaughton never gave more than a passing thought to the head restraints in his Ford Aerostar - not until a driver slammed into his vehicle from behind, injuring his neck. Now, in addition to his role as PEMCO's top executive, McNaughton has become a vocal advocate on the proper use of head restraints.
McNaughton's concerns are amplified by the results of a new study released today by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The study shows that automobile manufacturers are improving the design of seats and head restraints in an increasing number of passenger vehicles, giving occupants better protection from whiplash injury in rear-end crashes. But to truly protect against whiplash, drivers still need to manually adjust many head restraints, particularly on older vehicles.
"Making people aware of the need to properly set their head restraints benefits everyone," said McNaughton. "First, we want to help people prevent serous injuries. Second, we want to lower the costs of paying claims for medical services and loss of income."
Neck injuries in rear-end crashes are common. According to IIHS, a well-designed restraint can lower the risk of whiplash injury by reducing the differential motion of an occupant's head and torso in a rear-end crash. Unsupported, the head will lag behind as the torso accelerates when a car is hit from behind.
In the U.S., whiplash injuries alone account for billions of dollars in insurance claims each year, according to the Insurance Research Council statistics. For McNaughton, his 1991 accident was an eye-opener because the impact wasn't even all that severe.
"The damage to the vehicle was about $1,000," he said. "What amazed me was how much the head restraint hit under the back of my skull and extended my neck. It was a fixed restraint, but it was short. That raised the question of how they ever came up with a restraint that height, given all the different-size people who use those vehicles."
PEMCO donated two cars with adjustable head restraints to IIHS in 1993 for the first-ever head-restraint crash tests. Using high-tech dummies at its Vehicle Research Center in Virginia, IIHS found a significant decrease in the whiplash effect on the dummies when the head restraints were adjusted to the proper height - no lower than the dummies' ears.
"In rear-end collisions where an adjustable head restraint is set too low, it can work as a fulcrum," said McNaughton. "It overextends the head and neck."
Testing head restraints
This year, for the first time, IIHS rated head restraints based on actual crash tests using a "sled" that can simulate the decelerations that occur inside a passenger-vehicle component during the 100 milliseconds or so of a crash. Test results proved that while automakers are improving head restraint "geometry" or design, many motorists are not reaping the full benefits.
Based on test results, IIHS rated 73 seat/head restraint combinations available in 63 car models sold in the U.S. market on a scale of good, acceptable, marginal or poor. The automobiles with the safest head restraints include: Volvos (all models), Saab 9-2X and 9-3 models, Jaguar S-Type, Subaru Impreza, and some Volkswagen New Beetles. Only eight of the 73 seat/head restraints that were evaluated using the new test earned overall ratings of "good."
McNaughton now drives a Volvo because of its active head-restraint system.
How to adjust head restraints
Every time you get in your car, buckle up and make sure your head restraint is raised high enough to cushion the back of your head. Set it no lower than your ears. If your head restraint is too low, you could get serious whiplash injuries in a rear-end collision, even at slower speeds. Have your passengers do the same.
In previous studies, IIHS found that restraints in about four of five passenger vehicles have to be manually adjusted upward to protect many occupants. But such restraints often are not adjusted and instead are left in the lowest position, where they can't provide many occupants with whiplash protection in rear-end crashes.
PEMCO's efforts to educate drivers
McNaughton spearheaded PEMCO's efforts in 1992 to educate drivers about the need to manually adjust head restraints. According to IIHS, PEMCO was the first insurance company in the nation to air advertising on the topic. PEMCO radio ads urged people to set their head restraints properly, and in 1993, PEMCO TV ads featured IIHS's crash-test footage of the PEMCO-donated vehicles. The ads' message was simple: "Set your head restraint no lower than your ears." PEMCO also educated its policyholders by mailing an insert with safety tips for adjusting head restraints.
For additional information on head restraints and how to adjust yours to the appropriate height, visit the PEMCO Web site: perspective_fall2004.pdf.
You can also visit the IIHS Web site at www.iihs.org.
About PEMCO Insurance
PEMCO Insurance, established in 1949, is a Seattle-based provider of auto, home, boat, life and umbrella insurance to Washington state residents. PEMCO Insurance is sold by community agents throughout the state, as well as through PEMCO offices. For more information, visit www.pemco.com.