Man Driving Car

A safety improvement that would reportedly cost automakers little more than a dollar per vehicle could save lives -- particularly those of children. However, it hasn't been mandated by federal regulators. Now two U.S. senators are taking matters into their own hands.

The safety issue in question involves seat backs. Since 1989, over 100 people have been seriously injured or killed when a front seat back gave way in a rear-end collision, sending the person in front backwards onto them. Most of the victims have been children.

Members of Congress Accuse NHTSA of Inaction

On May 25, Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal called out the agency that regulates automakers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for doing nothing to require manufacturers to take steps to strengthen seat backs, despite evidence for decades of safety issues. Therefore, they say, automakers have little incentive to do anything about the problem.

Markey compared it to NHTSA's inaction for many years on airbag safety issues. He said, "We had warnings on airbags for years. NHTSA did nothing. We've had warnings on seat backs killing children in the back seats. NHTSA has done nothing. This ... has to end."

NHTSA claims that there's insufficient data to support requiring a change in the way that seat backs are manufactured. However, Rep. Diane DeGette, who also spoke out on the issue, noted that "you might say it's only a hundred people who have been injured or killed. But that's a hundred people who have been injured or killed." She asked, "[W]hen the fix is just a small cost, why wouldn't you do that?"

Story of 16-Month-Old Victim Garnered Media Attention

Markey and Blumenthal said that they are sending letters to 19 automakers demanding answers, giving them until June 23 to respond. One of those automakers, Honda, was involved in a CBS News investigative report on a 16-month-old girl who was killed when her father's seat back collapsed after the family's Odyssey Minivan was hit from behind by a driver traveling 55 miles per hour.

There are powerful incentives for automakers and other companies to improve product safety besides government regulation. Media attention and litigation can drive businesses to change practices. While it may be too late for victims and surviving family members who take legal action, they could well be saving the lives of others.