Carmakers look to new headrest design to reduce whiplash injuries

By Stefan Weissenborn , dpa

BERLIN–The incidence of reported cases of whiplash has risen dramatically in many Western countries over the past three decades but a new generation of head restraints are helping to reduce the number of such injuries to motorists involved in car accidents.

The Kamei company produced the first safety headrests for cars in 1952, although the first version was considered as much as a cushion for the driver and passenger’s head as a safety feature.

It took many years before head restraints became standard in cars as a means of protecting the occupants of a vehicle from suffering head or neck injuries in the event of a rear-end or side-impact collision. Although a patent for an automobile ��headrest�� was granted to Californian Benjamin Katz as far back as 1921, head restraints were only first mandated by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in all new cars sold in 1969. According to Wolfram Hell, an accident researcher at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, between 60 and 80 percent of all people who suffer injuries in a car accident, complain of whiplash.

��It is a mass phenomenon,�� he says. Stiffness of the neck, severe pain on movement or restricted movement after several days are typical symptoms, but there can also be long-term consequences including headaches, dizziness and tingling in the arms.

Part of the problem is due to the negligence on the part of drivers and passengers alike, who fail to adjust seats and head restraints before commencing a journey.

��The number of injuries could be reduced significantly if the head and back were correctly supported,�� explains Hell.

For example, even the best head restraints are of little use if the driver is slouched in his seat because he wants to lean on the center armrest.

As a rule, the seat back should be as upright as possible and in contact with the driver’s back. The pedals should be easily reachable to prevent a misalignment of the body, while the head restraint should be no more than two to three centimeters from the head.

Designers for the major carmakers have for years been looking at ways of reducing the number of whiplash injuries caused through motor accidents, resulting in a number of different versions.

As well as the traditional ��passive�� restraint, there is now the ��active�� version which automatically moves forward to support the head during accidents, thereby reducing the whiplash effect.

There are also what are called ��pro-active�� restraints, which contain sensors that identify a rear-end collision above a certain severity. For example, the headrests used by Mercedes release a pre-tensioned spring, which helps to slide each head restraint forwards and upwards in order to support the heads of the front passengers. After release, the headrests can be reset to the initial position. Hell believes supports and seats should be developed together, which would reduce the need for active headrests but most consumers still find it extremely difficult to figure out the safety features involved. ��It is not possible to judge a seat’s quality simply by looking at it,�� he says. Instead, Hell recommends potential car buyers first look at the result of crash test results from organizations such as Euro NCAP.