A six-year CBS News investigation has found potential dangers from— and a possibly outdated government safety standard.
Vehicle front seats can collapse in rear-end collisions, launching occupants into the back seat with dangerous or even deadly consequences.
CBS News identified more than 100 people who were severely injured or killed in alleged seatback failures in the past 30 years.
As Kris Van Cleave reports, most of them were.
Four years ago, Jason and Kat Hartwell were on the way home from celebrating their son Taylor's fourth birthday when their 2012 Honda Fit was rear-ended. Jason's seat collapsed backwards, striking Taylor and causing a severe traumatic brain injury.
"From that day on, it's just been a battle. Some good days, some bad days. It's just something I don't want anyone to go through," Jason said with tears in his eyes.
Talking about the crash is hard for the entire family, but Taylor's parents want to warn others.
"You're talking about the car accident, and it's making me upset," Taylor told his mother while the family sat with Van Cleave.
Hugging her son, Kat Hartwell replied, "I know, I know. That's why we're doing this. To help people out there."
Crash tests obtained by CBS News from multiple automakers show that when cars are hit from behind, the front seat can break and fall backwards, potentially launching the front seat occupants into the rear of the vehicle.
Experts blame the problem on an outdated federal seat strength standard, unchanged since the late 1960s — a standard that even a banquet chair tested by CBS News passed.
But the Hartwell family's attorney, Joshua Lewis, believes the seat's recliner presents another danger.
"There's a bar that connects the two recliner mechanisms in the seat. If that bends, the seat can fall backwards?" Van Cleave asked.
"That's correct," Lewis said.
A report on the Hartwells' accident, commissioned by the family for their lawsuit, found that in order for Taylor's injuries to occur, the driver seat had to collapse backward. The only "significant visible evidence" of a cause was "the bending and distorting of the recliner connecting rod."
In a deposition, the report's author testified he had seen similar failures occur in the seat manufacturer's own testing.
However, Lewis has not been able to obtain those tests and believes Honda does not want them to.
"Honda won't give it to us," he said.
The Hartwells' lawsuit against Honda also alleges that in 2015, one year before their accident, Honda installed a shield on the recliner rod in its later model, which could prevent that rod from bending.
Asked if he had any idea of what that modification to the seat costs, Lewis estimated from public record that "a fix may cost more than $1, but less than $10."
Honda was fined $70 million in 2015 for failing to report deaths and injuries in its vehicles to the federal government.
Prompted by CBS News' probe, a year later, Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal sent Honda and other automakers a list of seven questions related to seatback safety.
In its response, Honda did not specifically answer any of the questions — saying only 2% of product liability claims in the past decade included allegations of seatback failures.
The Center for Auto Safety's Jason Levine, who has been pushing regulators for years to make seats safer, said "Safe seats should be standard."
"Even if it's only a 2% problem, if it's preventable catastrophic injuries and deaths, why wouldn't we all be working harder to make that problem go away?" Levine said.
In a statement, Honda said the 2012 Honda Fit "exceeds" federal safety standards.
"The 2012 Honda Fit is a safe and well-designed vehicle that exceeds Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for occupant protection. While Honda sympathizes with Taylor Hartwell and the Hartwell family, the unfortunate injury to Taylor Hartwell did not occur in the manner claimed by their lawyers or as a result of any defect in the design of the vehicle. The reclining mechanism of the driver's seat cannot be activated as claimed by plaintiffs' lawyers, and physical evidence establishes that it remained engaged during this crash. Because this matter is in litigation, Honda is not able to comment further," the automaker said.
For Jason Hartwell, the main concern is his son's life.
"I just wanted him to live a happy, normal life. Be able to run, do everything a little boy can," he said. "I think about it. Of course, it hurts. It's deep. I'll never get over this."
While the story focuses on a Honda vehicle, those recliner rods are in many vehicles on the road in the U.S.
Safety regulators say the safest place to put children is in the back seat. Senator Markey plans to reintroduce legislation aimed at fixing the seat strength standard in the coming months.
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