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CBS News Investigation Provokes Change To Federal Vehicle Safety Laws Protecting Children In The Backseat

An investigation from CBS News provoked change in federal vehicle safety laws enacted when President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Bill Monday.

Six years ago, CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave and producer Megan Towey discovered during the course of the investigation that regulators and automakers knew about issues with seats collapsing during vehicle collisions, but nothing was being done to prevent it.

The federal safety standard, established in 1967, leaves front seats of vehicles susceptible to collapsing during rear-end crashes. The result can be fatal for children sitting in the back seat of vehicles. Under new legislation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) now has two years to upgrade federal requirements in the seat strength standard.

CBS's Katie Johnston sat down with Kris Van Cleave to discuss his multi-year investigation exposing safety standards.

"It certainly wasn't that people didn't know about it," explains Van Cleave. "You kept seeing examples of it and well-documented proof people knew there was a problem and no action."

CBS News learned, as early as 1989, a well-regarded crash investigator notified NHTSA of concerns regarding the strength of front seats in vehicles. The investigator appeared on 60 Minutes in 1992 to discuss the issue, but no adjustments were ever made to the federal seat strength standard.

"We learned in 2000, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator told CBS News that this was a standard that needed to change. A couple of years later, NHTSA abandoned their research on looking for a better standard," says Van Cleave.

According to reporting from Van Cleave and Towey, CBS News found over 100 cases of children being seriously injured or killed in these types of accidents. However, tracking down lawsuits or victims stemming from these types of crashes proves challenging.

"When there would be an accident that would lead to a lawsuit, they tended to be settled and then there would be non-disclosure agreements," says Van Cleave. "Automakers didn't really want these cases, it seemed, going to trial and going into the public record."

Crash test videos obtained by CBS News shows, when a seat collapses, the driver is launched into the back seat, where children are often seated. Reporting revealed that all the seats failing crash tests met or exceeded the federal strength standard established a half-century ago. But so does a banquet chair.

"Think about all the things that have changed in vehicle safety in 54 years."

Van Cleave says their reporting is not finished. He and producer Towey plan on following up with NHTSA during the next two years to determine what is being implemented to increase safety standards in seat backs while also investigating automakers' response to the new regulation.

You can read CBS News' full report with link to previous coverage here.

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