• Reclining Seats Trade Safety For Comfort
  • July 22, 2009 | Author: J. Kent Emison
  • Law Firm: Langdon & Emison, Attorneys at Law - Lexington Office
  • Virtually every state has enacted mandatory seat belt laws and spent millions of dollars on safety campaigns reminding motorists to buckle up. Ever since three-point restraint systems—lap/shoulder belts—have been made standard equipment in all vehicles, collision fatalities have dropped almost 50 percent, saving thousands of lives every year.1 However, these restraints do not work unless they are worn properly.

    If a seat back is reclined, a three-point restraint becomes much less effective, if not useless, because the shoulder harness moves away from the passenger. Few people realize that the more space between the restraint and the passenger's chest, the greater the risk of death or serious injury.2

    Automotive manufacturers have known about this problem for nearly four decades. At the 1964 Stapp Car Crash Conference—a forum for the presentation of research in impact biomechanics, injury tolerance, and injury protection—two safety-equipment engineers presented a report analyzing the effect lap belts have on reclined-seat occupants. The report discussed sled testing in which the seat back was reclined almost as far as possible. When the sled stopped suddenly, the test dummy submarined under the lap belt almost 10 inches, driving the restraint into the figure's abdominal cavity.3

    In 1988, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducted a study that confirmed the danger of reclined seats.4 A conflict arose between the safety board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) as to whether any action to correct the problem was needed. None was taken after auto manufacturers lobbied NHTSA to reject any new regulation.

    As a result, there are no Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that apply to this hazard, and automakers have no incentive to reduce or eliminate it. They have neither adequately warned motorists about the danger nor manufactured seats that are safe when reclined.

    Safety check

    The NTSB study examined 167 collisions involving passengers who had worn three-point restraints—some properly, others improperly. Misuse included wearing the belt with excess slack, misrouting the shoulder belt under the arm or behind the back, and using the restraint while reclined. The researchers evaluated injuries to both groups.

    The results showed that three-point restraints offer good protection only if worn properly. An occupant who wears a seat belt while reclined is not "centered" in the belt, rendering it ineffective for spreading crash forces over the body. The NTSB stated that the protection offered by any type of seat belt is compromised when the seat is reclined, presenting a "potentially dangerous combination in a moving vehicle."5

    The study also noted that although some vehicle owner's manuals warn of the dangers of reclined seat backs in moving vehicles, the warnings do not state specifically what degree of recline is dangerous. Further, the researchers cited vehicle advertisements that show restrained passengers reclined in moving vehicles. The NTSB concluded that "such advertisements undermine the already limited effectiveness of owner's-manual warnings (especially if the warnings are unclear, as in advising not to recline the seat 'any more than is needed for comfort')."6

    The researchers paid special attention to a head-on collision that killed a seven-year-old boy. The child had been asleep in the front passenger seat, which was reclined 43 degrees, and his body submarined under the lap belt on impact. The researchers concluded that the child would not have been killed if his seat had been upright.

    They also determined that passengers involved in two other collisions suffered worse injuries because their seats were reclined.7 The remaining 164 collisions involved seat belt injuries caused by defects in the restraint system itself.

    In May 1988, the NTSB submitted safety recommendations to NHTSA based on the findings.8 The report stated that a passenger in a moving vehicle could receive serious injuries if a seat is reclined "excessively" and requested that NHTSA determine "to what degree a seat back can be reclined and still allow the occupant to be properly and safely restrained by a lap/shoulder belt."9 The safety board told NHTSA that as little as one inch of slack in the shoulder harness increases the chance of injury. The greater the slack, the greater the likelihood of injury.10

    NHTSA responded three months later, agreeing that serious injuries could occur if a seat is reclined "excessively." The agency noted that "it is likely that most people who ride with the seat back reclined are not aware of the associated risk; they are simply using the added comfort the reclining seat back affords."11 NHTSA noted that no federal standards address the hazard and asked automakers to comment on it.

    The NTSB responded in March 1989. Among its findings:

    • Warnings in owner's manuals are not effective for preventing passengers from misusing lap/shoulder belts and reclining seats.
    • It is not known at what point the lap/shoulder belt becomes dangerous with reclined seats.
    • Testing is required to determine the safe limits of reclined seats.12

    That July, the auto industry responded to NHTSA's request for comment, placing blame not with auto manufacturers but with the motoring public. The industry claimed that owner's manuals effectively "discourage" the use of reclined seats while a vehicle is in motion and that "common sense" indicates that an upright seat is safer than a reclined one.13 Even though the response contradicted NTSB findings and NHTSA's initial position, the automakers convinced the safety administration to drop the investigation.

    Both safety agencies concluded 15 years ago that warnings in owner's manuals are not effective, but automakers have resisted enhancing them or placing additional warnings in vehicles. A warning as simple as the one below is inexpensive to incorporate into vehicle design and conveys the information needed to alert passengers of the danger:


    SEAT BACK UP when vehicle is moving.

    If seat back is reclined in an accident, you can slide under the seat belt and be ejected or

    • catch your neck on the shoulder belt.
    • suffer severe, perhaps fatal, internal injuries.

    Be sure your shoulder belt is against your shoulder.14

    Alternative designs

    Various alternative designs could eliminate or greatly reduce the danger associated with reclined seats. One—the "all belts to seat" design, which is used in several domestic vehicles, including the 2002 Chevrolet Suburban—mounts the seat belt system within a tiltable seat back. This design allows the shoulder harness to stay in position even when the passenger reclines the seat.15

    Another design incorporates an interlock within a vehicle's gearshift, preventing the driver from putting the car in gear if a seat back is reclined.16 Interlocks are not yet used in any vehicles.

    Automakers could also add a device that would warn vehicle passengers of the hazards of reclined seats. Twelve years ago, Takata—a major manufacturer of seat belt systems—patented a device that would give a visual or audible warning if a passenger were to recline his or her seat to a dangerous degree.17 Automakers have not yet designed vehicles that include the device.

    Case selection and experts

    Attorneys handling these cases must prove that the reclined seat back caused or worsened the plaintiff's injuries. An ideal case involves two front-seat passengers, one of whom was seated upright and suffered only minor injuries and another who sat in a reclined seat and received catastrophic injuries.18

    The strongest cases involve frontal collisions in which the reclined passenger submarined under the lap belt, and rear collisions in which the passenger was propelled backward over the seat and ejected from the vehicle.

    Your team of experts should include a vehicle design expert, an accident reconstructionist, and a biomechanical engineer. In addition, a seasoned warnings expert will help defeat the standard defense that safety warnings in the owner's manual were sufficient to discourage the plaintiff from reclining his or her seat.

    The design expert will need to overcome the automaker's argument that it is not possible to identify, for all occupants' seats, a specific angle at which a reclined seat makes a restraint system useless. In these cases, automakers typically assert the defense that vehicles must be designed to fit passengers of all shapes and sizes, and that large passengers sometimes must recline the seat in order to buckle the restraint. The plaintiff's design expert can explain to the jury that the alternative designs mentioned above could be incorporated in a vehicle and would protect all occupants, regardless of size.

    Expert witnesses will also prove essential to counter defense claims that the severity of the accident—not the reclined seat—caused the plaintiff's injuries and that the automaker is without fault because the vehicle meets all federal safety standards. These witnesses will also help refute defense allegations of comparative fault in which the automaker blames the passenger for reclining the seat despite (vague) warnings provided in the owner's manual.

    Neither NHTSA nor vehicle manufacturers have shown any interest in adequately warning motorists about the danger of reclined seats in moving vehicles. Automakers have likewise done little to equip vehicles with seats that can be reclined without endangering passengers' lives. The motoring public will remain at risk unless preventative action is taken. Until then, only meritorious lawsuits will increase awareness of the hazard and impel the auto industry and government agencies to act.


    1.Christina G. Rehm & Robert K. Goldman, Seat Belt & Car Seat in a Reclined Position: A Dangerous Combination, 51 J. TRAUMA 1189 (2001).
    3.D.J. SCHRUM & E.L. PROVOST, AM. SAFETY EQUIP. CORP., DYNAMIC RESEARCH OF PASSENGER RESTRAINING DEVICES (1964); see also Michael Henderson, Searchlight on Seatbelts, AUTOSAFE, Mar. 1973, at 15.
    4.NAT'L TRANSP. SAFETY BD., supra note 2.
    5.Id. at 43.
    7.Id. at 46.
    8.Id. at 7.
    11.Letter from Diane K. Steed, Administrator, Nat'l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., to Jim Burnett, Chair, Nat'l Transp. Safety Bd. (Aug. 2, 1998) (on file with author).
    12.Letter from James L. Kolstad, Acting Chair, Nat'l Transp. Safety Bd., to Diane K. Steed, Administrator, Nat'l Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (on file with author).
    13.Letter from Jeffrey R. Miller, Acting Administrator, Nat'l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., to James L. Kolstad, Acting Chair, Nat'l Transp. Safety Bd. (July 24, 1989) (on file with author).
    14.Sample warning provided courtesy of Kenneth R. Laughery, Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Psychology, Rice University, Houston.
    15.U.S. Patent No. 4,610,480 (issued Sept. 9, 1986).
    16.U.S. Patent No. 5,311,962 (issued May 17, 1994).
    17.U.S. Patent No. 5,055,824 (issued Oct. 8, 1991).
    18.See, e.g., Kumar v. Shumar, No. 98-09-6065/CC-3026 (Md., Baltimore City Cir. Ct. May 12, 2000).