Seat Heater Safety Takes a Back Seat

Four years ago, Safety Research & Strategies, along with nationally recognized burn care specialists, raised an issue long neglected by automakers and the regulators: seat heater safety. This comfort feature -- often designed to reach maximum temperatures that range far above human tolerances – can and does pose dangers to occupants, but it is rarely investigated or recalled.

Situational Science

A high-profile seat-back failure case that delivered a $43 million plaintiffs’ verdict this summer also exposed major flaws in the work of a renowned researcher, whose studies are often cited by manufacturers in arguing against stronger vehicle seats.

Dr. David C. Viano, a former General Motors scientist, now a private engineering consultant, was retained by seat designer and manufacturer Johnson Controls to testify that the 2000 Dodge Neon seat at issue in Heco v. Johnson Controls was not defective, based, in part, on statistical analyses performed by Viano and his colleague at ProBiomechanicals LLC, Chantal Parenteau, using the National Automotive Sampling System-Crashworthiness Data System (NASS-CDS).

A prolific researcher, Viano has reversed his positions on seat designs over the course of his career, from a proponent of stronger seat backs, and seat integrated belts as a GM Principal Scientist, to a defender of weak seat backs as an expert witness defending auto companies against litigation claims. As a high-profile figure in this area of automotive design, Viano’s current views have been accorded a weight that, his critics charge, is not supported by the quality of his research. 

Viano declined to respond to these criticisms.

The Heco case emanated from an August 4, 2007 rear-impact crash. Dezmila Heco was stopped at a light in Essex, Vermont when she was rear-ended. Although Heco was wearing her seat belt, the 2000 Dodge Neon’s restraint system failed when the seat back collapsed. The force of the crash threw Heco into the rear of the occupant compartment, where she broke her neck, leaving her a quadriplegic. Over the course of the two-week trial this summer, a Chittenden County, Vermont jury found that the seat in Dodge Neon, designed and manufactured by Johnson Controls of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was defective and the cause of her severe injuries. It awarded Heco and her sons more than $43 million.

Taking the Burn Out of Seat Heaters

Back in February, SRS wrote to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and National Mobility Equipment Dealers about the problem of car seat heaters and drivers with lower body sensory deficits, such as paraplegics and diabetics (See It's Time to Make Seat Heaters Safer). Many consumer heating devices that make direct contact with the body, such as electric blankets, are designed with maximum temperature limits, but not so in the auto industry. In the absence of any regulation or industry standard, vehicle manufacturers have implemented a variety of designs, some of which lack an automatic cut-off and reach maximum temperatures that can produce third-degree burns or both.

For occupants who have limited or no sensations below the waist, these designs are dangerous. The medical literature has been documenting severe burns suffered by disabled drivers and passengers from car seat heaters since 2003, and nationally recognized burn care specialists joined our effort to engage adapters, regulators and manufacturers in averting these preventable injuries.

Seat Back Strength an Issue in Rear Seat Safety for Children

Researchers from the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia looked at the effect of reported deformation of the front seat back rearward on the injury risk to children seated in the rear in a rear-impact crash.

Dr. Kristy Arbogast, Associate Director of Engineering for The Center for Injury Research and Prevention at CHOP, said that the study evolved from crash investigations conducted by their research team as part of several research projects. Researchers took note of several crashes in which a child seated in the rear of the vehicle suffered facial injuries in a rear-impact crash.

Sebring Seat Back Case Reveals Defect that Mitsubishi Tried to Conceal; Attorney Vows to Pursue Fraud

MOBILE, ALABAMA - After settling a seat-track and airbag defects case against DaimlerChrysler and Mitsubishi, attorney Patrick M. Ardis says he will pursue a fraud investigation against the Japanese automaker.

Ardis, of Wolff Ardis, P.C. of Memphis, Tennessee, alleges that Mitsubishi deliberately concealed that it had changed the design of the seat tracks in 1995-2000 Chrysler Sebring and Dodge Avenger coupes, the 1995-1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse, and the 1995-1998 Eagle Talon vehicles to fix a flaw that prevented the front passenger seat from locking into place. Ardis and his co-counsel Richard Taylor discovered the alleged fraud on the eve of trial, when one of their expert witnesses, Don Phillips, stumbled onto evidence that the seat tracks in the 1998 and 1999 model years lacked the seat adjuster part, known as the trigger, that was part of the 1996 track assembly.

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