House Democrats introduce bill to require stronger car seat backs

House Democrats introduce bill to require stronger car seat backs

Three House Democrats are moving to force the government to raise the safety standards governing car front seat backs, which may collapse during rear-end collisions and injure or kill passengers in the back seat.

Representatives Kathleen Rice, of New York; Jan Schakowsky, of Illinois; and Diana DeGette, of Colorado introduced the Modernizing Seat Back Safety Act in the House Tuesday. In a press release, the lawmakers credited a CBS News investigation with prompting the legislative push to fix the issue.  

Their bill would require the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, or NHTSA, to update its decades-old strength standard for vehicle seats to address failures during rear-end collisions within two years.

"It is completely unacceptable that seat back integrity standards have not been improved after so many tragedies," Rice said in a statement. "Even worse, most of those injured or killed as a result of these tragedies have been children. It is long overdue for NHTSA to address this issue and upgrade seat back safety standards to better protect vehicle occupants."   

This is the companion bill to the one introduced by Senators Ed Markey and Richard Blumenthal that was advanced by a Senate committee this month and has been folded into the Senate's $78 Billion Surface Transportation Investment Act.  Markey first introduced the measure after learning about the issue from the CBS News investigation.

Backers of the House bill are cautiously optimistic this measure can move quickly and be passed as part of a larger infrastructure bill when the House votes next week.  

In a series of stories that began airing in 2015, CBS News revealed that when hit from behind, car front seats may break and their occupants can be propelled – forcefully – into the rear seats where children usually sit.

After CBS News' initial series of reports, in November 2016, Congresswoman DeGette joined Senators Markey and Blumenthal in sending a letter to NHTSA demanding the agency, "take immediate action to remedy this significant seating system deficiency."

CBS News identified more than 100 people, mostly children, who were severely injured or killed in alleged seatback failures over the past 30 years. The number is likely higher: In 2016, then-NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind acknowledged that such crashes were not closely tracked. 

One of those killed was Taylor Warner, who would have turned 12 last week. She was 16 months old and strapped into her car seat when her family's minivan was rear-ended.  The force of the crash caused her father's seat to break and collapse backward into Taylor.

Her parents, Andy and Liz Warner, have spent years advocating for a new seat strength standard.

"I've always thought of this as a way to make sure she doesn't die in vain," Andy Warner said.

Crash tests have shown the risks associated with seatback failures for decades, with problems existing in many different car makes and models. Auto safety experts blame a seatback safety standard that dates back to the 1960s.

"For over fifty years the government seatback standard has been so inadequate as to allow the average dining room chair to pass a test that is supposed to protect back seat passengers in a rear crash,"  Said Jason Levine, executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety. "Representative Rice's Modernizing Seatback Safety Act will finally require the auto industry and the federal government to upgrade the safety of new vehicle seatbacks for an estimated cost per vehicle that is less than the average car wash."  

"Enough is enough," Markey told CBS News Congressional Correspondent Kris Van Cleave in April when he introduced the measure. "CBS has put the spotlight on this issue. It's time for Congress and the Biden Administration to put those safety measures in place."

NHTSA does not comment on proposed legislation.