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Headrests and neck injuries


Over the past five or six years one of the areas of car safety that has improved is whiplash protection and neck injury. Leading safety advocates like Saab and Volvo came up with ‘active’ headrests over a decade ago. These stayed at a comfortable distance from the back of occupant’s skulls, but in the event the car being rear-ended, moved forward to reduce the gap between the person and seat—dramatically reducing the incident of neck injuries. The IHSS found a 43% reduction from Saab’s system, which is astounding.

So effective were they that our government decided we all needed to be protected, and 2009 vehicles have to either have active restraints or headrests that basically press on the back of occupant’s heads at all times. Now, I’m all for passive safety—especially when there’s rarely anything one can do when someone careens into the back of your car. But the implementation of these laws varies so widely it behooves consumers to make sure they can live with what the manufacturers have done.

Some do it right: even inexpensive cars from Kia and Hyundai have active headrests that stay out of your way until there’s a crash; they use a relatively simple mechanical system wherein rigid bars running down into the seat’s backrest respond to the movement of a person’s body in an accident, levering the restraint against the head and neck.

Yet the new Nissan 370Z’s mechanism is always moving around behind you, which is incredibly annoying. And companies ranging from Ford to Mazda seem to feel they should save a few pennies here. Instead of any type of active restraint, they merely increased the size and angle of their headrest. This means front seat occupants are always feeling something rubbing on their head, a very aggravating sensation to many. And these aren’t necessarily inexpensive vehicles: I just spent time rubbing the back of my head in the otherwise wonderful Lincoln MKT, a $50k crossover with these frustrating, fixed restraints. While one can move the headrest up on its posts, this decreases safety and does even more to impinge on the view of rear seat riders. While I understand the desire of the car companies to reduce costs, this simply isn’t the place to do it.