Freakish as it may have seemed, the accident that killed 13-month-old Weston Kingsley was foreseeable.
On the day he died in February 2014, he was buckled into his car seat behind his father, Jonathon Kingsley, who was at the wheel of the family minivan. Kingsley and his wife, Kelsey, of Old Fort, North Carolina, were driving the older of their two boys to Sunday school.
As they waited to turn left into the church parking lot, a pickup rammed their 2003 Dodge Caravan from behind, according to court papers. The impact caused Jonathon Kingsley’s seat to collapse backward. Weston was bashed in the head and his skull was fractured – by the seatback, the headrest or perhaps his father’s head. The toddler died a few hours later.
For decades, safety regulators and the auto industry have known that many seats can fail in moderate- to high-speed rear-end crashes. When the seat collapses, the driver or front-seat passenger can slide rearward out of the seat belt and be launched headfirst into the back seat, badly injuring back-seat passengers or suffering paralysis or death themselves.
Since the 1990s, automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have instructed parents to put young children in the back seat to avoid injury from an inflating airbag. But critics say they have failed to provide another crucial piece of information: Due to the risk of seat failure in a rear collision, the safest place for a child is behind an unoccupied seat, or else behind the lightest person in the front.
NHTSA officials “are the safety experts,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit watchdog group. “They know that if you put a kid behind an occupied seat, you’ve got a problem. And they’ve never shared that expertise with the public.’’
On March 9 the center filed a petition urging NHTSA to modify its child seating recommendations and to require automakers to say in owner’s manuals that, whenever possible, children should sit behind empty front seats or behind the lightest people. Such warnings are essential, the petition said, because of NHTSA’s decades-long failure to require sturdier seats that perform better in rear crashes. In a letter to NHTSA Administrator Mark R. Rosekind, the group also urged the agency to act favorably on a separate petition, filed last September, to upgrade its seatback standard. It’s uncertain when NHTSA will act on the petitions.
Adopted in 1967, the federal seat standard is nearly a half-century old. To support their view that the standard is a joke, safety engineers have run tests showing that lawn and banquet chairs, and even cardboard seats, are sturdy enough to meet the strength requirements. NHTSA officials themselves have repeatedly acknowledged that the standard is outdated, but they say their hands are tied.
According to the agency, injuries and deaths involving seat failures appear to be rare. Therefore, there is little hard data to demonstrate that the benefits of a stronger standard would outweigh the costs. In the meantime, NHTSA spokesman Gordon Trowbridge said in an email, the agency is taking other steps that he said could prevent some “rear impact crashes from occurring in the first place.” One measure being touted by the agency is a voluntary pledge by automakers to make automatic emergency braking a standard feature in nearly all new vehicles by September 2022.
But the Center for Auto Safety says deaths linked to seat failures are more common than the agency thinks, and are overlooked in crash reporting. It noted that the federal database called FARS – Fatality Analysis Reporting System – counts deaths in rear collisions but not whether they involved seat failure.
The group submitted a list of 64 lawsuits involving deaths and injuries linked to seat collapse, including 22 in which the victims were children. It included an analysis of FARS data showing that since 2001, an average of 50 children a year riding in back seats have been killed in rear collisions. It called on NHTSA to investigate these cases to determine whether seat collapse played a role.
Experts say that seats with integrated safety belts – that is, restraints built into the seat – tend to be more robust than those with belts attached to the vehicle’s side pillar. They also say that Mercedes-Benz, Volvo and BMW models offer stronger seats.
Calls to strengthen the seat standard date at least to the 1970s. In 1989, separate petitions calling for an upgrade were filed by engineers Ken Saczalski and Alan Cantor, who also joined with colleagues at engineering firm ARCCA Inc. last September to petition NHTSA again.
In 2003, NHTSA researchers reported that tests had shown seats collapsing in 30 mph rear impacts. “Fatalities and injuries to rear child occupants due to seatback collapse . . . have also been reported,’’ their paper said. “This is especially of concern since NHTSA recommends to the public that children of age 12 and under should be placed in the rear seat.”
Even so, NHTSA threw up its hands, saying in 2004 that it was essentially powerless to act. “Additional research and data analysis are needed to allow an informed decision,” according to a Federal Register notice. “In comparison to other crash modes, there is considerably less data available to assess the potential benefits of upgrading” the standard.
In their September petition, Cantor and his colleagues said the standard “does not address the seat strength required in even insignificant rear-end crashes.” They noted that automakers have moved beyond the bare minimum, with the weaker seats on the market testing at about 2.5 times the required strength. But that still is “well below the strength needed’’ to withstand even moderate-speed crashes.
Cantor, whose business includes testifying for injured plaintiffs, told FairWarning that “nothing would make me happier than never seeing another seat failure case.” Each one “involves tremendous suffering by a family. Somebody’s paralyzed for life, somebody’s brain-injured, somebody’s child is injured, and I just want to see it stopped.”
While NHTSA has been immovable, there has been action in the courts, with some big damage awards against automakers and seat manufacturers.
Last month, a San Antonio jury socked Volkswagen AG’s Audi unit with damages of $124 million for a child severely injured in a seat collapse. Jesse Rivera Jr., who is now 11, suffered brain damage and partial paralysis in December 2012 when his father’s 2005 Audi was rear-ended while stopped behind a school bus. The jury determined that Audi was 55 percent responsible for the child’s injuries.
After the death of their son, the Kingsleys filed suit last May against the maker of the Caravan – FCA US LLC, the company long known as Chrysler – and against William Tyler Hoover, the driver of the pickup that rear-ended them at an estimated 45 mph.
The Kingsleys declined an interview request, but in a statement included in the police report, Kelsey Kingsley, 30, recalled the tragedy. She said that just before the crash, she looked back at Weston “smiling and laughing.’’ Then, suddenly, she “felt like a bomb had exploded,” and saw flying glass. Both front seats collapsed, though no one but Weston was badly hurt.
In court papers, FCA denied liability and blamed Hoover for the toddler’s death. “FCA US extends its deepest sympathies to those affected by this tragic crash,” company spokesman Michael Palese said in an email to FairWarning. “The 2003 Dodge Grand Caravan meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards and has an excellent safety record.”
Maxximus Sales was also a back-seat passenger when he died in a rear collision in April 2014. Four-year-old Maxx was in his car seat behind his mother, Kayla Davidson, as she waited at a red light on their way home in Memphis, Tennessee. A car smashed into the rear of their Chevy Malibu and, according to court papers, three things happened at once: Maxx was pushed forward by the impact, Davidson’s seat bent backward towards Maxx and her foot struck the seat adjustment lever, causing the seat to slide back. The headrest bashed Maxx in the face, causing multiple fractures and brain trauma. He died in the hospital three days later.
Behind the unoccupied front passenger seat was the empty car seat of Maxx’s infant brother, who was not with them that day. Had Maxx been seated there, there’s no doubt he would have survived, said Davidson’s lawyer, Patrick Ardis.
Davidson’s lawsuit against GM, seat manufacturer Faurecia and the estate of the driver who rear-ended her – who died in the crash – recently ended in a confidential settlement. GM declined a request for comment.
“GM wanted to blame everything on the violence of the crash,” Ardis said. “All they had to do was to say, ‘Do the best you can to avoid putting a child behind an occupied seat.’ ”
This story was reported by FairWarning, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on public health, safety and environmental issues. A longer version of the story appears at www.fairwarning.org.