Is it normal for a seat back to break in a serious car accident?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 01, 2004

Dear Tom and Ray:

My 17-year-old daughter was in a car accident when her '93 Ford Contour was T-boned by a sport utility vehicle, a 2002 GMC Yukon. Her car spun around several times and ended up in a ditch. She was wearing her seat belt, but her seat back broke, and the violent whiplash apparently caused a traumatic brain injury, which left her in a coma for six weeks. She's still recovering, and it looks like she's going to be OK. My question is, should the seat back break during an accident? Is that common? I would like to understand what happened. Thank you. -- Susan

RAY: Geez, Susan, we're glad to hear that your daughter is going to recover. Not that many people recover after getting T-boned by an SUV. She's very, very lucky.

TOM: There ARE regulations that govern the strength of seat backs. Without going into the details of the force requirements, we can tell you that seat backs are designed to withstand a good amount of force when the car is hit from behind. They're designed to brace the occupant's back in an accident so that the other restraints -- seat belts, air bags -- can do their jobs.

RAY: The problem is that your daughter's car wasn't hit from behind. And without a complete accident reconstruction, it's just impossible to know what kind of forces hit that seat.

TOM: For instance, it could have been intrusion by the front end of the SUV that broke the seat. No seat back could be expected to withstand that. Or the seat could have been ripped out of the floor. It's anybody's guess. Without that knowledge, it's impossible for anyone to say whether the seat back did what it should have done.

RAY: There have been some severe, rear-end accidents in which seat backs have broken, and some attorneys have had success in suing car manufacturers in those cases. But unless you're willing to go that route -- hire an attorney and an accident-reconstruction expert -- you can't know whether the seat broke because of a defect, or simply because of a terrible, unusual collision.

TOM: I don't know how to advise you here, Susan. We know from past experience that it's not unheard of for a car company to cheap out on something. But if it were me, in this case, I think I'd just be thankful that my daughter survived getting T-boned by a three-ton behemoth, and be grateful for the protection the car DID provide. The manufacturer obviously did something right. Good luck to both of you, Susan.

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