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I have a four-door Jeep Cherokee and I'm worried that...

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Dear Tom and Ray:



I have a four-door, 1996 Jeep Cherokee, and I'm worried that the low rear seat, which doesn't have headrests, might be dangerous in an accident. I noticed this when my son recently went from being in a child seat (which extended up past his head) to being in the back seat without a child seat. Now his neck is just above the low seat back. Although I really like the Jeep (despite its barbaric interior), I'm concerned. I see newer SUVs, and they have two or three headrests in the back. They must be there for a reason. So, is this car safe for rear-seat occupants? Frankly, if it's not, I'll sell it tomorrow and get something else, because my family's safety comes first. But if I'm just being a paranoid lunatic, I'll keep it. -- Alan

RAY: Well, you can always do what my brother did. He left his son in a child seat until the kid was old enough to drive himself.

TOM: You're absolutely right to be concerned, Alan. The reason vehicles have headrests is to keep passengers' necks from snapping in a collision.

RAY: Since 1969, the federal government has required headrests on the front seats of all cars. In 1991, NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) extended the rule to include previously exempt light trucks -- which is the category that includes the Jeep Cherokee.

TOM: But manufacturers have never been required to put headrests in the back. Lots of manufacturers do, because it's been proven to decrease neck injuries. But they don't have to.

RAY: So when you buy a cheap, barbaric vehicle like the Cherokee, you don't get all of the amenities you'd get if you bought something better. Jeep simply skimped on the rear headrests in this vehicle. And no, it's not safe. If you were rear-ended, your son could suffer a serious neck injury.

TOM: Normally, you'd have three options, Alan. One would be to go to a junkyard and buy a rear seat from a Cherokee that does have the optional rear headrests. But you can't do that because, as far as we know, they were never even offered as an option on the Cherokee.

RAY: So your second option is to find an interior customizer. Look in the yellow pages under "Van Converters." They would have the seats, the experience and the insurance liability coverage to replace your rear seat with one with a higher back.

TOM: But your best bet might simply be to a get another vehicle. The Cherokee got a "Marginal" rating in overall crashworthiness from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And if safety is really your primary concern, you can do a lot better, Alan.
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