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Crash testing isn’t a perfect system. Over the years, the IIHS has continued to fine-tune and, when needed, completely rework its crash testing to more accurately show how safe our cars are. We might be in another one of those reworking times now. New data from the IIHS suggests that rear-seat safety might not be as good as we thought. 

IIHS New Side-Impact Crash Test Rig
IIHS New Side-Impact Crash Test Rig | IIHS

How safe is it to sit in the back seat of a car? 

We have loads of data on crash test dummies sitting in the front seats, but according to Consumer Reports, the IIHS just released seat results for the first frontal crash-test ratings in the U.S. focused on rear passengers.

Consumer Reports’ manager of auto safety for CR’s Auto Test Center, Emily Thomas, says, “In our rear-seat safety features ratings, we reward manufacturers that put proven front-seat safety technologies in the rear seats. The new ratings from IIHS have the potential to expand the implementation of these technologies, which can improve crash outcomes for rear occupants.” 

IIHS’s updates to this testing include a Hybrid III crash-test dummy representing a small adult or an average 12-year-old child sitting in the rear outboard seat. For the first round of testing, the IIHS used 15 small SUVs, ultimately showing a clear safety imbalance between the rear seats and the front. I guess this makes calling “shotgun” a bigger deal. 

Which SUVs have the safest back seats? 

A blacked out interior of a 2023 Nissan Rogue with leather seats for five
2023 Nissan Rogue interior | Nissan USA

According to Consumer Reports, the IIHS found that among the 15 models tested, the Ford Escape and the Volvo XC40 earned the top rating of “good.” The Toyota RAV4 is the only model with the second-highest rating of “acceptable.” At the same time, the Audi Q3, Nissan Rogue, and Subaru Forester scored second from the bottom with a “marginal” score. The IIHS found that the other nine SUVs tested fell in the agency’s lowest rating of “Poor.” 

Consumer Reports was already ahead of the game

CR proudly reports that while the IIHS is updating its crash testing standards, the new data goes to support CR’s already longstanding work of rating cars’ rear-seat safety potential for young children in child car seats and booster seats. CR found that in cars where the rear seats mirror safety features like adjustable seat belt anchors and seat belt pretensioners in front seats, the cars are safer overall. 

“In the front seat, crash tensioners (pretensioners) tighten the seat belts the instant a crash begins so that the occupant’s body begins to slow with the vehicle. Then, as the tightened belt stops the occupant from flying forward, force limiters allow some of the webbing to spool out to reduce the risk of chest injuries,” says IIHS.

Although this data is new to U.S. crash testing, Consumer Reports notes that these crash tests focused on rear seats have been happening in Europe for a while.

“Manufacturers have been slower to include this technology in U.S.-market vehicles, but these new ratings should spur huge safety improvements for rear-seat passengers,” says Thomas. “Over the years, IIHS and Euro NCAP have shown the significant influence consumer crash-testing programs can have on the marketplace.” 

And if any of this concern for rear-seat safety seems unnecessary, think again. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA) reports that motor-vehicle-related deaths are at a 15-year high for U.S. roads. The concerns about staying belted in the back seats are valid. Of the 23,824 passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2020, 46 percent were unrestrained at the time of the crashes. As we mentioned earlier, there is good reason to be concerned with keeping rear-seated passengers belted and with proper seat belt safety features. Remember to wear a seat belt no matter where you are seated in a car. It matters.