Pain in the Neck: Head Restraints Flunk Tests

by : Anthony Fontanelle

Head restraints in dozens of SUVs, pickups and minivans offered only poor or marginal protection from neck injuries in simulated rear-impact crashes conducted by the insurance industry.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's test results, released last Tuesday, found several SUVs had improved protections against whiplash injuries. But poor ratings are given to several vehicles built by top automakers including BMW AG, DaimlerChrysler AG, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp., Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.

The designs of seats and head restraints in 21 current SUV, pickup, and minivan models are rated good for protecting people in rear impacts. But 54 other models are rated marginal or poor. Another dozen are rated acceptable.

The latest evaluations of occupant protection in rear-end collisions by the Institute found that the head restraints in more than half of light truck and minivan models fall short of needed protection from neck injury or whiplash. The Institute's ratings of good, acceptable, marginal, or poor for 87 2007 models are based on geometric measurements of head restraints and simulated crashes that together assess how well people of varied sizes would be protected in a usual rear crash.

Among the best performers are the head restraint combinations in SUVs made by Subaru and Volvo and new product lines from Acura, Ford, Honda, and Hyundai. Among the automakers, Subaru is making the greatest improvement. The automaker's latest product lines are far from the traditional . Additionally, head restraints in three minivan models from Hyundai and Ford earn good ratings.

The Institute said that the simulated rear crashes at 20 miles per hour showed that many large vehicles fall short in protecting against neck injuries, which lead to two million insurance claims a year costing at least $8.5 billion.

Compared with six of 44 SUVs tested last year, out 17 of 59 SUVs from the 2007 model year received top ratings in the testing. "We're seeing some improvement, but it's not across the board," said the Institute's Adrian Lund. "We still have a lot of vehicles out there that we rate as marginal poor. In fact, 59 percent of the SUVs and pickups and minivans that we evaluated we gave marginal or poor rating for their whiplash protection."

The best performers among 2007 SUVs included the Acura MDX and RDX; Lincoln MKX, Ford Edge and Ford Freestyle; Honda CR-V, Element and Pilot; Hyundai Santa Fe; Jeep Grand Cherokee; Kia Sorento; Land Rover LR3; Mercedes M Class; Mitsubishi Outlander; Subaru B9 Tribeca and Forester, and the Volvo XC90.

SUVs which rated poorly were the BMW X3 and X5; Buick Rainier, Chevrolet TrailBlazer, GMC Envoy and Isuzu Ascender; Cadillac SRX; Chrysler Pacifica; Dodge Nitro; Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer; Mitsubishi Endeavor; Hummer H3; Hyundai Tucson; Jeep Liberty; Kia Sportage; Lexus GX470 and RX; Nissan Xterra; Saab 9-7X; Suzuki XL7; the Toyota 4Runner and Highlander.

Only one pickup, the 2007 Toyota Tundra, received the highest rating of good in the rear-end crash tests. The Tundra posted four stars in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) frontal tests, while its U.S. rivals garnered five stars, the highest mark. NHTSA does not perform rear crash tests.

Three minivans received top ratings: the Ford Freestar, Hyundai Entourage and the Kia Sedona. For pickups, the Institute gave poor ratings to the Chevrolet Silverado 1500 Classic and the GMC Sierra 1500 Classic; Dodge Ram 1500; Ford Ranger and Mazda B Series; Nissan Frontier and certain versions of Ford F-150, Dodge Dakota and the Mitsubishi Raider.

Meanwhile, minivans scoring poorly were the Buick Terraza, Chevrolet Uplander and Saturn Relay; some versions of the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan; and the Toyota Sienna.