A couple of weeks ago, I was sleeping in the front passenger seat of our car when it slammed into the vehicle in front of us. We were on the highway coming home from a family trip. The other three people in our car weren't hurt. But I'd reclined my seat, and my seat belt, which was riding high, left a long welt around my rib cage and along my stomach. As it turned out, I had internal bleeding from a lacerated spleen and three cracked ribs. I spent the next two days in intensive care.
I've recovered nicely, thank you. But the more I thought about my accident, the more I wondered whether I'd inadvertently done myself in by tilting my car seat back—as I do on just about every long drive. We worry a lot about car seats and kids (a subject I've written about). There are government guides and centers that show you how to buckle and position them right. Adults, on the other hand, are just told to wear their seat belts. But one of the main functions of kids' car seats (once they've reached the age of about 3) is to make sure that their seat belts hit them at the right height. Tilt your car seat back in the front, and you'll find that the seat belt no longer rides the way it's supposed to—the upper strap moves up toward your neck and the lower one up from your pelvis to your middle. And it turns out that is dangerous—though somehow neither the government nor car manufacturers think they need to clearly tell us so.
Federal transportation safety officials started worrying about the risks of reclining car seats back in 1988. Since then, the medical literature has bolstered the case for concern. Yet somehow, car manufacturers have never been required to put warning labels on car seats like, for example, the ones that detail the dangers of air bags. The carmakers have argued that it is "common sense" that an upright seat is much safer than a reclining one. In other words, everyone knows, or should know. Maybe I'm the only clueless one out there, but I don't think so.
In the 1980s, the National Transportation Safety Board studied 167 crashes in which passengers wore seatbelts and concluded that the belts only work well when they're worn correctly. There are a variety of ways to screw up your seat belt—one of them, the NTSB concluded, is to change its position by reclining your seat, creating "a potentially dangerous combination in a moving vehicle." One of the accidents the NTSB looked at was a head-on collision that killed a 7-year-old who'd been asleep in the front. "The researchers concluded that the child would not have been killed if his seat had been upright," according to this article in the journal Trial.
When NTSB told the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration about its findings, NHTSA opined that "it is likely that most people who ride with the seat back reclined are not aware of the associated risk." According to the Trial article, the automakers were asked to comment and offered the endearing "common sense" retort I've mentioned, along with the argument that it's enough that some owner's manuals warn against "excessive" reclining.
And that was it: The government agencies never took action. Rae Tyson, a spokesman for NHTSA, told me that the warnings in the owner's manuals "appear to be sufficient." He also said that "there are only federal safety standards issued when we believe there is a problem large enough to justify expense of new regulation." And he accused me of "arbitrarily" picking out one aspect of car safety based on "anecdotal evidence."