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Dangers lurk for kids in popular third-row seats

By James R. Healey, USA TODAY

Picture a hefty friend at the fast-food drive-through window, feet shoving hard on the floor of the car to stabilize himself as he squirms in the driver's seat to reach the wallet in his pocket. Bang. The driver's seat collapses backward. That's what would happen if the seat were built to the federal government's minimum standards. Now imagine a seat that flimsy in the third row, inches from the rear glass, as in today's sport-utility vehicles and car-SUV crossover models. The kids are buckled up back there, you're stopped at a light — and a drunk doesn't notice and rear-ends you at 30 or 40 or 50 miles an hour. The result is frightening to contemplate.

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Video Safety of third row seats in question


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Chances of that happening are growing fast because third-row seats have become a must-have feature in millions of vehicles. To meet customer demand, third rows are being squeezed wholesale into both SUVs and crossovers barely long enough to accommodate them, leaving mere inches between the seat and the back of the vehicle.

Distance isn't the only criterion for judging the safety of third seats; seat strength and design are key. But every one of those seats is governed by a 32-year-old federal strength and safety standard that won't be changed for at least a year.

Birth of a trend

Watershed year for third-row seats was 1997: Dodge offered midsize, midprice Durango with a third row, and Mercedes-Benz put one in its upscale ML SUV.

Previously, third rows were for minivans and big SUVs.

Now, when third-row seats are offered, they're taken. For example, 96% of Durangos had three rows last year.

If seating is the question, aren't minivans the answer? "I hate minivans. I'd never in a million years have a minivan," says Linda Steinberg of St. Louis, speaking for thousands of minivan defectors.

But "when people started turning away from minivans, they wanted SUVs to do everything their minivans did," says George Peterson of consultant AutoPacific.



"The third row is pretty vulnerable to rear-enders — like about twice as dangerous" as other rows, says safety consultant Mike Brownlee, formerly in charge of defect investigations and rules compliance for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). As more third-row seats hit the market, injuries and deaths will increase, he predicts.

Seat safety has been under fire for more than a decade. The proliferation of third-row seats, mainly meant for kids, gives the complaints new vigor.

"A lawn chair could pass" the NHTSA minimums, says Kevin Calcagnie, a Newport Beach, Calif., lawyer who has sued car companies over seat-related injuries.

Ford Motor's director of safety research, Priya Prasad, won't buy that, but he did provide the big-guy-squirming example of what could overwhelm a seat no stronger than the feds require.

13 years, and not done

NHTSA plans to propose seat-standard upgrades this summer — 13 years after the agency began its official rule-change process in response to requests from safety experts. It'll take at least a year to collect public and industry comments and fashion a new regulation. The delay, NHTSA says, is proof of how complex the issue is, rather than evidence of foot-dragging.

Here's the dangerous problem: In a rear crash, the seat back — regardless of which row — acts as the restraint system, just as the safety belt and air bag do in a front crash. If a seat back is so rigid that it stays upright in a violent rear-ender, the stiff seat slams its passenger forward at the moment of impact. Then the passenger snaps backward against the stiff seat as the struck vehicle halts. Severe whiplash can result.

If, on the other hand, the seat is so yielding that it'll absorb lots of the crash force, the seat back bends far enough backward that the passenger could fly out into whatever's behind — solid glass or a tailgate, in the case of third-row seats.

The bounce-back from a yielding seat also can cause whiplash. Plus, it takes close to 3 feet of space for a yielding seat to lay back fully. A third row gets that much space only in big SUVs, such as Chevrolet Suburbans.

The sweet spot is somewhere between very stiff and fully yielding, but nobody's quite sure where. There's no generally accepted crash-test dummy to measure rear impact forces, and no universal rear-crash test to measure seat safety.

There were 2.3 million rear collisions in 2000, according to the latest-available federal statistics. That was 21.7% of all crashes. There were 2,980 fatal rear-end wrecks in 2000, 6.2% of all fatal collisions.

The worst thing about a rear-ender might be the driver's helplessness.

"A rear-end collision is one you don't control. Somebody drives into you while you're sitting at a light or something. In front, I can see what's coming and try to avoid it," says Matthew Bernstein. He lives in Manhattan, drives a crossover SUV with three rows, and calls it "a little nerve-racking" because his kids are so close to the back.

A decade before third-row seats became a must-have feature in SUVs and crossovers, they were merely a practical accessory in minivans. Now there are millions of minivans on the road with third-row seats, enough to generate reliable accident data.

When a minivan with a third-row occupant is hit from behind, the occupant is killed half the time, according to a Ford Motor analysis.

It's lucky, then, that third rows are infrequently occupied — just 1% to 2% of the time, according to accident statistics.

But when somebody is back there, it's usually a child. Adults won't even fit many of the latest third-row designs. Kids are least likely to be properly buckled up, studies show, and correct use of the safety belt is key to surviving rear crashes, safety experts note. Compounding the danger, today's third rows are pretty close to the point of rear impact.

For example, GM's Buick Rendezvous, a crossover SUV based on a minivan, has just 8 inches between the third-row seat back and the tailgate glass. Ford's Explorer SUV has 13 inches. Honda's Acura MDX has about a foot, depending on how the seat's adjusted. Suzuki's XL-7 small SUV has about 13 inches of clearance, depending on the adjustment.

An extraordinarily well-designed seat can help make up for lack of crush space. But there's more agreement on what makes a good cup holder than what makes a crash-worthy seat.

"There is no litmus test. It's largely judgmental," says Bob Lange, General Motors' executive director of vehicle crash-worthiness. "There's no single evaluation one can run that says, 'Yup, you got it.' There's a lot more art to it. It's like Goldilocks — it has to be just right."

And "just right" means different things to different automakers.

BMW Chairman Helmut Panke, for instance, says that his marketing people have been lobbying for an optional third seat for the BMW X-5 crossover SUV. But Panke says he hasn't seen a design that he believes is safe, because the seat would be so close to the rear of the vehicle.

Rival brand Volvo, on the other hand, has a slightly bigger crossover SUV called XC90 coming late this year with a third-row seat, and insists it is safe. "It was tempting to put the third row farther back, but we have to have the crush space for a high-speed (rear-end) crash," says Hans Wikman, XC90 project director.

"Whether there's 1 foot or 3 feet in the rear, it comes down to the design," says Frank Paluch, chief engineer at American Honda's research and development operation.

No universal design

In addition to disagreement on how far back third-row seats safely can be placed, there's no universal seat-design standard.

Ford's Prasad says most models in the U.S. market have settled on about triple the NHTSA standard. NHTSA requires a seat back to withstand 3,300 inch-pounds of force, a measure of pressure equivalent to what 3,300 pounds could exert at the end of a one-inch lever, or 1 pound could exert at the end a 3,300-inch lever, or any combination of those that multiplies to 3,300.

In Prasad's earlier example, a hefty driver pushing backward exerts more force than that. A safety consultant's proposal to NHTSA 13 years ago suggested 56,000 inch-pounds.

"Everybody has migrated to about 10,000 inch-pounds. The seat should not break if you are leaning against it entering the car, or if you go into your hip pocket for your wallet," Prasad says.

Lange says GM's standard is "multiple times" the federal standard. Honda says its seats are less than twice the federal standard, but safe because its vehicles dissipate crash forces well.

Those are the closest to real numbers that automakers provide. Car companies say their seats are safe and exceed federal standards, but won't disclose the seat-strength numbers to prove it.

NHTSA began looking into modifying its seat-safety regulations in 1989 after separate petitions from safety consultants Edward Harkey and Kenneth Saczalski, both focusing on seat backs.

NHTSA's official position on its long-running process: "There is genuine debate in the technical literature regarding the risks and benefits of more-rigid seat backs vs. those that yield, and we must ensure that any changes to the standard are cost-beneficial without producing other safety problems. ... NHTSA intends to issue a proposed upgrade to the seat back standard this summer."

The agency, in separate actions, is toughening head-restraint regulations and fuel-system strength rules before revising the seat standards. Proper head restraints will minimize whiplash threats posed by stiffer seats, NHTSA believes. And fuel systems that must not leak after 50-mph rear-enders, instead of 30-mph now, will minimize fires, dangerous to people trapped inside because of flimsy seats.

Safety consultant Brownlee, the former NHTSA official, says head restraints are key. "The company line has been that you have to have forgiving seats. But the trick is you have to have the seats and the head restraints acting in concert, and then you're OK. The whole whiplash thing is a red herring," he contends.

Without even an imperfect index of seat safety, consumers have little but the chorus from car companies: "Trust us; seats are safe."

Does that mean that people in the back seat of GM's Buick Rendezvous, only inches from the back glass, are as safe in a rear-end crash as those in the third row of GM's Chevy Suburban, three feet from the back?

"Well," says GM's Lange, "maybe."

Contributing: David Kiley
 

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Wow! That's a great article.

I've often wondered about the safety of those vehicles that have the rear seat so close to the rear of the car.

My grandsons usually ride in the rear seat of the Ody, now I'm wondering what we can do differently.
 

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That was too much to read.
What's the short answer? Are third-row minivan seats safe or are they now dangerous?
 

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<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by RAUSTER181:
When a minivan with a third-row occupant is hit from behind, the occupant is killed half the time, according to a Ford Motor analysis.
</font>
I don't know if we should take this as good or bad news?


But then again it's coming from Ford? And you know how much they care for their drivers $afety...not!


BTW, interesting article non the less.

-Nestor




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HOMER'S ODYSSEY
 

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<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by A. B. Hair:
At least in the Ody, the gas tank is not in the rear. This should be safter in a rear in smashup.</font>
But then again we are missing a full-size tire back there that *might* be good for taking some of the impact.

On another note I remember hearing on the news that Honda has built a huge facility in Japan that will be used for studying and test crashing their vehicles. I saw video clip of it and it looks quiet impressive. They said they will be able to recreate almost any crash situation. Head-to-head, side, Front-to-rear collisions, etc.

-Nestor


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Having owned a Grand Caravan that had a tire in the back, I can tell you it wouldn't help. It just hangs there by a cable and isn't supported at all on the sides to keep it in position. Besides, what you want is something that's designed to be crushed in a certain way to absorb the energy of the crash before it gets to you. The wheel and tire are quite rigid and may just push the impact further into the van. The idea is to design it to crush up around you without ever actually getting to you.

The jist of the atricle above (I just skimmed it to be honest) is that the third row in most SUV's are quite close to the rear and are therefore less protected. The Ody's rear seat is farther away than most SUV's, so it's better. Regardless, the second seat will always be safer because it's farther away than the third. That's the reason why they say to put kids in the center of the back seat of the car. It's the seat that's the farthest away from all of the impact points. In reality, the driver's seat (and front passenger) is the most dangerous using this logic, because it's the closest to the outside of the car. Besides the stiffness issue of the seat itself, this is a non issue. It's a matter of physics that the seats closer to the edge of the car are going to be more dangerous. If it bothers you that much, get an Excursion or take the bus.

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D Schaefer
1999 Odyssey EX - Mesa Beige, 9" TV/VCR w/Steel Horse Tote, SmartScreen rear delay wiper in process
1993 Escort LX - 'Fridge White, basic, no frils, get-to-work-and-back car
1960 Thunderbird Conv. - Raven Black, Red leather, THIS is the real fun!
 

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Thanks for the info. Having been in a high speed accident where the driver's seat absorbed a lot of the collision force I only use the 3rd row as a last resort. Now will start shoping the 5 passenger Envoy SLE 2WD with traction control since it looks to be a safer bet.
 

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<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Steve P:
That was too much to read.
What's the short answer? Are third-row minivan seats safe or are they now dangerous?
</font>
The article is about SUV 3rd row seats, not minivan 3rd row seats. That particular research does not apply to minivans.

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Darn it, life is not fair and filled with dilemas, is it?

We just had our 2nd child and to be clever, I figure I would remove the driver-side 2nd row seat (for easy access to 3rd row) and put the baby in the center of the 3rd row seat while her older brother on the passenger-side 2nd row seat. The plan is to have my wife seat in the 3rd row with the baby in order to watch the baby. Her 4-year-old brother remains in the passenger-side 2nd row seat, which is still the safest seat in the Ody. Now the 3rd row seat thingy gets me worry. I thought the 3rd row seat is right above the 2 wheels where there are the most metals in the vehicle and are the strongest locations of the vehicle to absorb energy in the events of collisions. The ideal solution is to put everyone in the vehicle in the center of the vehicle, but we can't do that, can we? Would this be better? Put the infant in the passenger-side 2nd row seat next to her mom and the older child in the center of the 3rd row seat by himself? Problem: getting in and out of the 3rd row to remove & buckle up the older kid is more difficult as the driver-side 2nd row seat is now installed and the only way to get to the 3rd row is through the passenger side. By the way, I have the passenger-side 2nd row seat slided in away from the slide door to create more safety zone in case of side impact. Sorry for the lengthy post.

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Totally Newbie now, but learning quick.
 

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Well, after reading the article, I just had to go measure how much room is back there.

I measured the horizontal interior distance behind the back seat:
base of the seat to the interior hatch: about 2 feet
top of the center headrest (lowered) to the window: 17 inches (1 inch less
for the left or right sides)
top of the center headrest (fully raised) to the window: 13 inches (1 inch
less for the left or right sides)

I assume Honda's rear seats aren't designed to yield so much as to lay flat in
a collision because there's not enough room with the headrests attached.
 

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Just curious, wouldn't Honda's Crumple Zone design for the Odyssey help in these crashes? I agree with dgs' posting. Accidents happen everyday, the only thing conumers have control over is selecting the safest, most comfortable vehicle out there. If anyone can find a luxury armored vehicle then I'll be the first few on that list.
 

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A Hummer(such a style statement!)?

Jerry O.

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2001 Odyssey GG LX
 

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I've never heard of a vehicle being crash-tested from the rear. I wonder if we could petition the IHS to do a rear-end crash test on vehicles that have been front-end crash tested. After all, the back of the vehicles aren't affected (much?) by front-end crashes, are they? So the incremental cost shouldn't be much higher.

While the Odyssey has a fair amount of space between the back of the vehicle and the rear seat, that seat doesn't look as strong as the 1st and 2nd row seats.

So although the article doesn't strictly pertain to minivans, it certainly concerns me. With 3 kids, we'd always have to seat one in the 3rd row.
 

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Have anyone see the actual crash test from the rear of the Odyssey? The crash statement above is for the SUV rear crash. Those SUV have about 1 feet from the rear door to the 3rd row seat. The Odyssey 3rd row seat have about 2 feet away from the rear door. It probably safer in the 3rd seat than the middle seats. Do you know what kind of distance do you have from the middle row seats to the side door/window? There is almost no distance between the middle row seats and the side door/window. If you want to have the safest spot in the car, would as well remove all the seats and mount one seat in the middle of the car for equal distance all the way around. It will be the safest seat in the vehicle. You would think the front seats are safe; but if you are not careful with the distance between you and the front airbag, the deploy force of an airbag can easily kill you before you have a chance to feel the impact of the crash. My uncle Mazda MPV third row seat are shorter than an Odyssey 3rd row seat, and they all safe from a high impact rear crash a couple months ago. They only have a minor injury from a full impact. I would think the Odyssey will be a lot safer in the 3rd row seat. I am a pro-safety, but I don't see any more danger from the 3rd row seat than any other seats in the Odyssey. There is no safe-prove vehicle out there. If you really want the safest vehicle, would as well drive a tank with rubber tires on them.
 

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[

So although the article doesn't strictly pertain to minivans, it certainly concerns me. With 3 kids, we'd always have to seat one in the 3rd row.[/B][/QUOTE]

If you had a DC van, you could have three passenger seating in the second row, at least that was the way it was in my '94 model. The rear seat could be moved up to the second row, if needed. Ya just can't "have it all" in one vehicle........

Jerry O.



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2001 Odyssey GG LX
 

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<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Jerry O:
If you had a DC van, you could have three passenger seating in the second row, at least that was the way it was in my '94 model. The rear seat could be moved up to the second row, if needed. </font>
Ahhh, if only life were that simple. We have a 2 year-old and newborn twins. That's three carseats. I don't believe there's a car on the market that's big enough to properly hold three carseats across -- definitely not if they're Britax carseats. That's the biggest reason why I'm buying a minivan. The other big reason is that the headroom will make it much easier to walk around and put kids in the carseats, change diapers, etc.
 

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<font face="Verdana, Arial" size="2">Originally posted by Marshall:
... I don't believe there's a car on the market that's big enough to properly hold three carseats across ... </font>
My sister used to put three car seats accross in her mid 90's Camry!
Was a tight squeeze. We've put three car seats accross in the Escort too, but at least one of them was a belt positioning type. In our '88 Caravan we used to put the third row seat in the middle to put all the kids across or we'd take the middle out and put all three in back for trips. The middle kid didn't use a car seat though, but I think we easily could have. With the third row seat in the second row, there's a lot of extra room beside it because it has to fit between the wheelwell in the back, and the wheels aren't there in the second row.

Now, moving that seat around was a pain! Because it had an adjuster in it and all the seatbelt mechanisms too it had to weigh nearly 100 lbs! I'll take that Magic Seat any day.

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D Schaefer
1999 Odyssey EX - Mesa Beige, 9" TV/VCR w/Steel Horse Tote, SmartScreen rear delay wiper in process
1993 Escort LX - 'Fridge White, basic, no frils, get-to-work-and-back car
1960 Thunderbird Conv. - Raven Black, Red leather, THIS is the real fun!
 
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