Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) are working to create a car seat system that can mitigate the effect of whiplash enough to significantly reduce the risk of injury from low-speed rear-end collisions.
Whiplash injuries account for more than two million insurance claims in Canada a year. In British Columbia, the economic costs amount to $600-million, according to the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC).
In the United States, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) estimates that more than $8.8-billion (U.S.) is paid out annually, accounting for 25 per cent of the total spent for all crash injuries.
The economic and social strain caused by these soft tissue injuries was an impetus for Daniel Mang, a kinesiology student at UBC, to develop an active "smart seat" that responds to the pulse created during a collision, and automatically adapts and adjusts the seat on impact to lessen the effect on the head and neck.
"We're trying to optimize and minimize the occupant responses by changing how the seat back will rotate depending on crash severity," says Mang in an interview.
"There are already sensors and accelerometers in vehicles that can roughly estimate how much you weigh, and they use these to deploy the airbags at different intensities. It's just a matter of whether the car also has sensors that can roughly estimate your mass."
Mang says that the smart seat has more time to adjust, so it would rely on technology similar to the airbags to sense the collision and adapt the seat in response to those accelerometers.
This is different from passive systems some auto makers have deployed in their vehicles. Volvo's seat hinge deforms in a way that allows the driver's head to make contact with the head restraint before any serious load transmits through the back or neck.
Toyota uses a levered head restraint that pivots forward and up to get the head into contact with the head restraint early.
Though "not fully optimized," Mang's initial test results on a crash dummy have been positive, with a reported "23 per cent decrease in offending acceleration at the base of the neck." Computer simulations have shown even better results, though more physical testing will be needed to gauge true results, he says.
Douglas Romilly, associate professor at UBC's department of mechanical engineering, has been actively involved with the project, which is chiefly funded by Auto21, a research and development initiative with federal, provincial and industry support.
He helped to spearhead a whiplash prevention website that compares IIHS ratings for seats so consumers can look for a vehicle with a safer seat.
"We know we can't compete with industry in terms of making things as lightweight or cost-effective in a production scenario," Romilly says. "We hope that once we've shown proof of concept, we could then find an auto maker or seat manufacturer that would be interested in taking it to the next stage."
He believes educating the public is key to rallying that interest because it might spur consumer demand for systems such as these. Insurance companies could also provide incentives and reduce premiums on safety systems that mitigate whiplash and other soft tissue injuries, he says.
"The concern is that every new ounce of material you put into the vehicle has to be justified for an auto maker because we have to move that mass around, and that will affect fuel economy, which is what cars are being marketed on right now," he says.
The IIHS is trying to do its part through its rear-impact tests, simulating collisions where a vehicle hits another stopped at a stop sign or red light at a speed of 32 km/h. The tests are designed to drive two things: taller head restraints that fit closer to the back of the occupant's head and seat backs that work in tandem with the head restraint to keep the torso and head moving together.
"One of the things that's now regulated is the amount of space between the back of a typical occupant's head and the head restraint must be about 2.2-inches or less," says Russ Rader, of IIHS.
"That's made a difference, but people do need to be aware that this is a safety device, and they need to make sure their head restraint is properly adjusted."
Rader says that the top of the restraint should be level with the top of the occupant's head, or as high as it can go if it can't reach. Distance should be no more than four inches from the back of the head.
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