Rear-Seat Safety Improving but Still Lagging Behind

Dear Car Talk:

I have always been a fan of the Kia Soul’s styling. I recently rented one and was nervous about how close to the actual rear of the car the back seat is. There’s not a ton of room between the backseat and the rear window. It seems like this car and others like it are putting the rear-seat occupants in a vulnerable position in the event of the car being rear-ended.

I have never seen any data on a car’s safety in a rear-end collision. Are there standards? Are modern cars like this safe?

Thanks for your entertainment all of these years! -- Steve

If you get the Soul, Steve, make sure you’re always the one who drives.

It’s a good question. The National Traffic Highway and Safety Administration rates rear-passenger safety but only for side impacts.

They simulate someone blowing through a red light at 38 mph and plowing into the side of your car. And for that test, the Kia Soul does well. But they don’t really test rear-end collisions.

It certainly makes intuitive sense that the less mass you have behind you to crumple and absorb the energy of an impact, the more force may get delivered to the body of the rear-seat passenger, relative to cars with trunks or large cargo areas. So I think it’s fair to be concerned.

But this may make you feel a little better: From what we can find, about 28% of all collisions were rear-end crashes. BUT, only about 6% of all crash fatalities were from rear-end crashes. That suggests that the rear seat -- in general -- is a relatively safe place to be.

And with the spread of collision warning sensors and automatic emergency braking, I would imagine the number and severity of rear-end collisions will decrease in the future.

But rear-seat safety is not as good as it should be. Why? Because, in general, car safety is measured by how well the front-seat passengers fare.

It makes some sense that the big safety organizations (NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) focus on front-seat safety, since more people travel in front seats than rear seats. But the result is that front-seat safety has improved a lot over the past few decades, and rear-seat safety has lagged behind.

So while manufacturers, eager to score well in the published safety ratings, added strategically-placed air bags up front, along with seatbelt pre-tensioners (to cinch a person into proper position before a crash) and load limiters (to strategically release seatbelt tension during a crash to protect bones from being broken), that stuff hasn’t been universally applied to back seats.

That should change when NHTSA and IIHS start publishing rear-seat crash results. We’ve been waiting for that for years, and it keeps getting delayed.

Meanwhile, only about a third of vehicles have those crucial safety features in the back (pre-tensioners, load limiters and rear side air bags), and you have to research individual cars to figure out if the car you’re interested in has them.

From our research, the companies that seem to be ahead of others in this regard are Nissan, BMW, Ford/Lincoln, Toyota/Lexus, Porsche, Audi and Mercedes.

But check before you buy

Todays Car-o-Scope

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You will receive unexpected help this week from a tall stranger. He will have the phrase "AAA 24-Hours" on the side of his vehicle.
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