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.

We never heard back from AAM or the mobility folks, but NHTSA Administrator David Strickland wrote a nice letter back acknowledging the issue. Strickland also committed to raising awareness and initiating a review of insurance claim data to better document the number of seat heater injury cases. Most importantly, Strickland said that the agency would encourage the Society of Automotive Engineers to devise a recommended industry practice:

“Based on the limited data available, we believe this approach would be best to efficiently identify potential countermeasures for preventing additional injuries attributed to seat heaters. We believe that the development of an SAE standard could include performance requirements for maximum temperature, an indicator to alert drivers and passengers that the seat heaters are activated, and an auto-shut off feature and location requirements to assure that the indicator is visible.”

An industry standard is certainly a good start. The issue isn’t the volume of complaints – it’s seat heaters that can reach temperatures up to 150ºF in real-world testing, and produce severe burns within minutes of contact. Human heat tolerances have been long established; a maximum temperature limit is a design concept that has been recognized and incorporated by other consumer products manufacturers. There is no reason why the auto industry can’t do likewise.

Kudos to NHTSA for agreeing to play a role.

Safety Research & Strategies June 9, 2011 letter to NHTSA Administrator David Strickland