Death Nap

The dangers of tilting back the front seat—don’t do it!

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.”

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.