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Over the years, I've owned many vehicles, but none of the head rests ever seem to fit. What's the deal? Why can't car makers design something comfortable? And is your head really supposed to be resting against it when you drive? – Isaac in Winnipeg

What's typically called a head rest is technically a restraint, and forms part of the vehicle safety system.

The features in your car are designed around an average size and weight, so it's not surprising that your head rest doesn't fit like a glove. Understanding its role, however, and proper adjustment can prevent or lessen a neck-related injury in an accident.

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If you're hit from behind, your seat and body are pushed forward. "The head restraint is designed to work with your vehicle's seat; it keeps your body and head moving together," says Russ Rader of the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

"The problem comes in if your head lags behind your body and snaps backward. That's what leads to neck injury, or what's commonly known as whiplash. Modern head restraints are designed to prevent whiplash, and that's why they're so much taller than they used to be."

Research by the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) has shown that drivers can reduce whiplash-related injuries by as much as 40 per cent through proper head restraint adjustment.

Not all restraints are alike. Some are only adjustable up and down, while others also move backward and forward. "Ideally the head restraint should be adjusted so it's as close to the back of your head as you can get it while still being comfortable, and as high on your head as you can get it. We suggest that you adjust head restraint so it's even with the top of your head. That would be the ideal position," says Rader.

If your head is resting against the restraint, it's fine, but it doesn't have to be touching unless that's how you drive comfortably. The distance from the back of your head should be as small as possible, however, and safety professionals recommend less than four inches or 10 cm.

The IIHS rates vehicles for crash safety, and part of those ratings is a rear-impact test to determine how well the seat and head restraint would protect a driver in a rear-impact collision. To lower your risk of injury, ideally you want a vehicle with a good rating – but personally adjusting your head restraint is also a critical safety factor.

The IBC found that more than half of Canadians don't have their head rest adequately adjusted to prevent injury.

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"Among the safety systems in your vehicle, thinking about your airbags for example, you're much more likely to need a head restraint to protect you in a crash than an airbag, because rear-end crashes are so common, especially in commuter traffic," says Rader.

You don't have to be involved in a high-speed crash to be at risk of a whiplash-related injury. The safety tests conducted by the IIHS simulate a collision at 20 mph (32 km/h).

Adjust your head rest as high as it will go on your head. Not only will this keep insurance costs down, it can save your neck.

Send your automotive maintenance and repair questions to globedrive@globeandmail.com

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