Congress demands answers on seatback investigation

The nation’s top auto safety regulator was given two years by order of Congress to make vehicle seats stronger, following a multi-year CBS News investigation. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, missed the deadline.

Now, 10 U.S. senators are demanding answers.

“I’m going to turn up the heat on NHTSA,” Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, told CBS News in a recent interview. “It shouldn’t be hard. This is actually very simple. We’re not trying to put somebody on a mission to Mars. We’re just trying to make sure kids in the back seat are protected.”

Markey leads the effort in Congress to require NHTSA to draft a new strength standard for vehicle seats within two years.  It passed as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure law enacted in November of 2021.

A year later, NHTSA told Markey in a December 2022 letter that it was on pace to meet the deadline to update the regulation dating to 1967.

That, however, did not happen.

“Frankly, I’m going to the president of the United States,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who is another vocal supporter of the legislation. “And I’m going to say you don’t want this agency to be delaying and dallying when kids’ lives are at stake.”

CBS News investigation, beginning in 2015, exposed that the 1967 strength standard leaves vehicle front seats susceptible to collapsing in rear-end crashes, putting children in the back seat at increased risk of injury or death.

Safety advocates estimate at least 50 children per year die in crashes involving a seatback collapse. Crash test videos obtained during the course of our CBS News investigation show how when cars are hit from behind, the front driver and passenger seats of many vehicles can collapse backwards, launching the occupants into the backseat area.

November marked 13 years since 16-month old Taylor Warner, was killed when the family minivan was rear-ended while at a stop sign.  The force of the crash caused her father Andy’s seat to collapse backward, colliding with Taylor who was strapped in her car seat. 

“I didn’t want my daughter to die in vain, and I’m going to go to the end of the earth to make sure that this is taken care of,” Andy said.

Andy and Liz Warner, of Littleton, Colorado, have become advocates for changing the seatback strength standard and had hoped this year bring some relief in a new regulation.

“As a mom, it just makes me angry,” Said Liz Warner. “Every day I put my kids in the car and I worry to this day, cuz you don’t know it could happen again.”

Safety advocates including the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C., also expressed frustration with the missed deadline.

“It shouldn’t require an act of Congress to get them to act on regulation. We shouldn’t have to wait for people to die to take action,” National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy told CBS News. “There are recommendations on recommendations upon recommendations that the NTSB has issued over and over and over again to NHTSA and others. There hasn’t been action. That tells me you’re not serious about safety. So get serious.”

While NHTSA is the nation’s top auto safety regulator, the NTSB is an independent federal agency focused on investigating civil transportation safety accidents and making recommendations on preventing future incidents.

In November, 10 democratic senators wrote to NHTSA seeking an update on the status of the 10 auto-safety improvements called for in the bill including the seatback legislation asking for a response by Dec. 15.

NHTSA responded days before Christmas.

“NHTSA is proceeding as expeditiously as possible to comply with the mandates and requirements of [the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law],” NHTSA’s Dec. 22 letter to Markey says. “NHTSA plans to publish an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) in the coming months…and expects to complete the rulemaking after careful consideration of public input throughout the rulemaking process.”

Senators Markey and Blumenthal were joined by Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Jack Reed (D-RI), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) on the November letter to NHTSA.

CBS News asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg what he was going to do about NHTSA missing the congressionally mandated deadline.

“When it comes to safety, the one thing that matters more than doing something in time for a congressional deadline is doing it right,” Secretary Buttigieg told CBS News. “NHTSA has to make tough choices every day, because literally everything they do involves life safety. They have limited resources to deal with dozens of overlapping requirements and mandates.”

In the course of the multi-year investigation, CBS News found crash test after crash test showing what can happen when a seat collapses: the driver is launched into the back seat, where children are often seated.

Yet our reporting found that all the seats that failed in these types of rear-end collisions met or exceeded the half-century-old federal strength standard.

In independent testing, CBS News found that even a banquet chair could pass the only test required for the standard — putting a brace across a seat, attaching it to a winch and pulling.

In the early 1990’s, NHTSA’s own researchers warned the agency about seatback collapses, citing examples of major or fatal injuries.

And carmakers have long known it is an issue. During a 1996 deposition, a General Motors engineer said the automaker started tying down its test dummies because they were “expensive” and the chances of losing them “were pretty high” during rear-end crash tests.  Another deposition with a GM engineer revealed that the cost to fix the problem was “on the order of a dollar or so” per seat.

In a statement to CBS News, NHTSA pointed to work it has completed including issuing a proposed rule to require automatic emergency braking in new vehicles and issuing a new regulation allowing for adaptive driving beam headlights in new vehicles in response to a directive from the infrastructure bill.

“The agency is currently working to complete all Bipartisan Infrastructure Law requirements,” a NHTSA spokesperson said in a statement to CBS News adding, NHTSA “has already made significant progress on several of those directives.”

NHTSA’s online dashboard shows the seatback regulation as being in the “Prerule Stage.”

“It needs to be fixed and it needs to be fixed now,” said Andy Warner.

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