The Washington Times - September 2, 2008, 10:21AM


Why are head restraints so annoying?



Many people buying 2008 and now 2009 vehicles are finding their seating is uncomfortable. When they look carefully at their seats they find that the head restraints are angled quite far forward and are not adjustable back-to-rear, but only up and down.

By the way, these things are properly called “head restraints,” not headrests. Their purpose has always been to limit whiplash injuries in crashes, not to make us feel like we’re in a Lazy Boy.

I’ve noticed this in every test vehicle I’ve driven this year. In every case I’ve lowered the seat back further so that my head and neck aren’t cranked in a forward arc. In many cases I’ve found the seating to give me a muscle tension headache after a while and it’s getting more and more irritating.

Getting to the bottom of this latest assault on our comfort, I consulted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) for an answer. It turns out that more than 270,000 whiplash injuries occur annually, even though head restraints have been in cars since the early 70s. In 2004 the agency created a new standard for head restraints that requires them to be higher and “positioned closer to the head.” The new head restraint rule took place for the 2008 model year, and that’s why we’re seeing the updated designs in new vehicles.

The new standard also requires head restraints to lock in place once positioned, which is no big deal in itself. Granted, making restraints cushion the head in rear-end collisions will significantly reduce whiplash injuries, and I’m well aware that these injuries can be chronic and quite painful. Still, there must be a better way of handling restraint design.

NHTSA estimates of the costs for manufacturers were, back in the rulemaking period, around $4.50 for front seats and a little over a buck for the rear seats. What manufacturers did was simply tilt the head restraint forward (which is really cheap and effective) rather than redesign the mounts to move the restraint forward and parallel to the seat back. This would have cost more money.

Shame on you, manufacturers! You took the cheap way out rather than spending another couple dollars re-bending the rods holding the head restraints. C’mon, guys, how hard would that have been? Now we’re going to have thousands of people complaining of stiff necks, headaches and general dissatisfaction with their cars.

When I buy a new car I’m going to have to remove the restraint mounts and take them into my workshop for “modification.” I’ll heat, bend and re-temper the steel (this is not illegal, by the way) once the restraints are repositioned for reasonable comfort and that will be that, but why should I have to go through this effort? You manufacturers should really make a better effort to design less uncomfortable restraints or, at the very least, offer more costly designs as an option.