Auto Tech

Don't sit in the rear seat if you can avoid it

Back-seat safety in cars is stuck in the '90s.

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IIHS/Brian Cooley/Roadshow

Don't sit in the back! You may think the back seat of a car is a safe cocoon, away from the windshield and dashboard, but that was decades ago. Today, the back seat is a relative backwater when it comes to safety tech -- and you might want to think twice before sitting back there.

Now playing: Watch this: Ride in the back seat at your own risk
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What's the problem?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety declared back seats a danger zone, according to a new study that catalogs how back seats have lagged in safety, with several specific deficiency areas:

  • A lack of rear belts that use force limiters to create some give, even while they are cinching up to hold you in place.
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TRW is among the companies developing supplemental restraint systems for back-seat passengers, like a rear frontal airbag. But can carmakers rationalize the cost of installing it?

TRW/Brian Cooley/Roadshow
  • A lack of the forward airbags that front seat passengers enjoy, though they are in development
  • Fewer side curtain airbags to protect you from bouncing off hard surfaces. 

And then there's the front seat passenger problem: Audi recently had a $125 million judgement entered against it for front seat backs that collapse in a rear end collision, which can send a front passenger backwards and head first into a rear seat passenger. And such a risk is not unique to Audi.

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Guess who's coming to visit? The front seat passenger, into your face and chest in a rear-end collision. Front seat backs don't typically hold up in those scenarios.

CBS News/Brian Cooley/Roadshow

What about kids in the back seat?

Kids in rear car seats are a different matter. Car seats are designed to mitigate some of the risks in the back and are typically safer than a kid facing a front airbag that deploys with far too much force to protect them. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends use of rear-facing child seat up to the maximum size of child the seat is designed for, not to an arbitrary age.

Unlike most other car safety tech, child seats laws vary by state, an odd patchwork compared to most other car safety standards that are dictated by federal law. That can give parents pause to wonder if their state dictates best practices, but you should know and follow the laws in your state as a minimum.