National safety regulator proposes new standards for vehicle seats as many say current rules put kids at risk

National safety regulator proposes new standards for vehicle seats as many say current rules put kids at risk

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday announced its plans to potentially update safety standards for vehicle seats — a major step toward amending protocols that, many have said, lack the strength necessary to protect riders from accidents turning deadly. The seatback standards were established decades ago and haven’t changed.

“This action today is a significant step toward improving and better understanding occupant safety, especially in rear-end vehicle crashes,” said Sophie Shulman, deputy administrator at the NHTSA, in a statement seeking the public’s feedback as the agency works to craft new rules for seatback safety. “NHTSA welcomes and encourages all public comments, which will help inform a potential rulemaking to update seatback safety standards.”

A six-year CBS News investigation brought to light some of the longstanding concerns over seatback safety in 2021, when it exposed dire weaknesses within the federal standard, which was created in 1967. Led by Kris Van Cleave, CBS News’ senior transportation correspondent, the probe found that front seats in vehicles were excessively vulnerable to collapsing in crashes where those vehicles had been rear-ended, even though the seat construction adhered to national requirements.

That investigation led to auto-safety reform legislation that President Biden signed the same year Van Cleave’s investigation ended. In part, it called on the NHTSA to develop new safety standards for seat strength, primarily in an effort to protect children sitting in the back seats of vehicles. Fatal incidents where front seats collapsed backward in rear-end accidents, and onto kids seated behind, had already been on the rise for years. 

Over six years of reporting, CBS News discovered at least 100 cases where children were either killed or seriously injured in seatback collapses that happened during a rear-end collision. Then, in January, some advocates for seatback safety reform told Van Cleave that estimates suggested at least 50 children die every year in situations that involve seatback collapse. 

Mr. Biden’s 2021 infrastructure law required the NHTSA to update seatback safety protocols within two years of the legislation’s passage, but the agency missed that deadline. Its announcement on Thursday presented an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which the NHTSA said aims to change federal motor vehicle safety standards specifically for the purpose of improving children’s safety during rear-end crashes. 

The agency will use public comments to determine what may need to be changed in one section of the federal standard relating broadly to seating systems, which it said “establishes requirements for seats, seat attachment assemblies and their installation in passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks designed to carry at least one person, and buses.” It may also use the feedback to review a subsection of the standard that addresses head restraints, particularly in the context of protecting occupants in rear-impact scenarios. 

“Among its considerations in the ANPRM, the agency seeks comment on seatback strength requirements, performance test parameters and various seat characteristics that are considered for regulation to improve rear impact protection, as well as relevant incident data,” said the NHTSA in its announcement.

CBS News Senior Transportation Correspondent Kris Van Cleave contributed reporting.

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