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Headrests: Tips on Avoiding Neck Injury

According to the Insurance Research Council (a group financed by insurance companies), strains and sprains of the neck are the most serious injuries in many automobile collisions. Depending on which tissues are damaged, the symptoms can range from neck pain and stiffness to headaches, dizziness, ringing in the ears, and numbness, tingling, and loss of strength in the arms and hands. Trauma to the neck can even cause or worsen spinal disc problems. Neck injuries like this can change someone's life, making it difficult or painful to work or enjoy physical activities.

Headrests, which have been standard equipment on American cars since 1969, are supposed to prevent or minimize these injuries, which are especially common in rear-end collisions. Ideally, the headrest should keep the neck from snapping back as far as it would in a car without a headrest.

According to safety experts, many headrests do not do the job well enough. There are two reasons for this: either the headrest is movable, so it can get pushed down when someone's head snaps back, or it cannot be positioned high enough or close enough to the head to limit the distance the head can move.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) looked at over 200 different models of vehicles from the 1997 model year. The study concluded that only five of these models had well-designed head restraint systems! 33 were rated acceptable, 49 marginal, and 124 poor. The study found that fixed restraints, which are part of high-back auto seats, were generally better, though even many of these were not high enough or close enough to the back of the head to do a good job.

While some manufacturers offer vehicles with well-designed head restraints, many lag behind. Until good headrests are the norm, you should look for three things when you shop for a vehicle with adjustable headrests:

  • Do the headrests lock in place, to give firm support in a read-end crash?
  • Can the headrests be raised high enough so they reach almost to the top of the head?
  • Can the headrests be rotated forward so they will be close to the back of the head?

Whenever you are riding in a car, don't leave the headrest in the down position. Make sure you move it up behind the back of your head, and as close to your head as possible.

For more information about the IIHS study, or to find out how to obtain the latest evaluations, you can visit the IIHS website, or write to the Institute for Highway Safety, Attention: Head Restraints, P.O. Box 1420, Arlington, VA 22210-1420.

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