The dangers of tilting back the front seat—don't do it!
And yet a 2001 paper published in the Journal of Trauma details the injuries of other reclining passengers, as does a 1991 paper in another medical journal, Injury. In 2005, a woman named Tami Martin sued Ford after she'd become a paraplegic, in an accident in which the driver fell asleep at the wheel and hit an ambulance that had stopped at a red light. Martin had been asleep, seat tilted back all the way, feet on the dashboard. She was riding in a Ford Aerostar minivan. Her lawyers argued to the jury that her seatbelt didn't work because she was reclining: She slid forward, and then her torso flipped over the belt, and she injured her spinal cord. The minivan driver and the driver of the ambulance, who were sitting upright and wearing seatbelts, were unharmed.
At the trial, Ford made the old argument that a warning in an owner's manual is warning enough. Martin's lawyers countered with a 2005 TV ad showing a guy lying back in a Ford with his feet (in cowboy boots) propped up. The lawyers brought in an expert who said that fewer than 5 percent of people read their owner's manual. (Tyson says NHTSA has no numbers to contradict this statistic.) The jury awarded Martin $12.9 million, even though the Ford she was riding in met every federal safety standard. Martin offered to give Ford half the money back if the company would agree to start issuing warnings. Ford said no and appealed the verdict instead.
In another case, Kent Emison, the lawyer who wrote about this for Trial, which is published by the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now called the American Association for Justice), won a $59 million verdict against Toyota on behalf of a man who had both legs amputated below the knee after an accident in which his seat was reclined. Emison points out that along with warning labels, there are other ways for automakers to reduce the danger of reclining seats. They could install a warning bell, or make it impossible to put the car in drive unless all the seats are upright. But he says that NHTSA won't require any safety measures, even a label, because of the lobbying power of the car manufacturers. And because the automakers fight hard against these lawsuits, it's only worth it to bring them on behalf of people who don't recover from their injuries. Emison also thinks that a lot of people don't sue because they don't realize that reclining car seats are to blame.
So, if the government and the automakers won't tell you, I will. Don't tilt the front seat back! No matter how much more comfortable your nap will be, you don't want to end up, like I did, in intensive care.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. She is also the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. Her new book is Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at email@example.com or on Facebook or Twitter.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.