How to save your neck in a rear-end crash

Whiplash is a common issue, but can be prevented

Last updated: April 2014

A rear-end crash occurs every 17 seconds in the U.S. But many cars, especially those made before 2009, offer inadequate protection from the whiplash injuries that can result. Whiplash refers to the rapid snapping back of a person’s head during a collision, which hyperextends the neck and damages nerves and ligaments, often resulting in chronic symptoms such as persistent pain and lack of mobility. It can occur at crash speeds as low as 10 mph.

Dramatic improvement

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which is funded by auto insurers, neck sprains and strains are the most frequently reported injuries every year. Taller people, especially women, are most susceptible, medical experts say.

However, head-restraint effectiveness has improved dramatically in recent years. The IIHS started a rear-crash program in 2004 and in 2005 nearly half the front head restraints were rated Poor and 12 percent were Good. By 2014 none rated Poor and 95 percent were Good

Federal standards were tightened in 2005, setting minimum heights for restraints and limiting the allowable distance between the front restraint and a person's head. The phase-in was completed for the 2009 model year.

Problems remain in the rear

While front-seat head restraints have gotten a lot better, rear-seat restraints often get short shrift. Although the situation has improved in recent years, many cars’ rear seats have less sophisticated head restraints than the front and have no restraint at all in the center rear.

We measure the height of the head restraints in all the cars we test and make sure they can stay fixed at least 29.5 inches above the seat cushion. If a restraint isn’t high enough to be effective in preventing whiplash, we note that in our test reports.

More vehicles are being made with effective, adjustable head restraints in all rear positions. But some, especially tall fixed restraints, create another problem, making it difficult for the driver to see out the rear windows. To redress that, some restraints can retract into a recess in the seatback or can fold out of the way when the rear seat is unoccupied. We prefer the type that folds forward or protrudes into the seating area, because they force rear passengers to deploy them before they can get comfortable. Volvos and Mercedes-Benz vehicle have those types.

Good positioning is critical

Whatever car you drive, you’ll get the maximum whiplash protection from a head restraint that’s properly positioned. To work well, the top of the restraint should reach at least as high as the top of your ears, and preferably the top of your head, and be relatively close—4 inches or less—to the back of your head.

Adjustable restraints are the most common type. They can be raised or lowered to the proper height, and many can be tilted toward or away from the head. But they’re only effective if occupants take the time to adjust them properly. Many people don’t, which increases their risk of serious injury.

More and more automakers have introduced "active" head restraints, which automatically move up and forward to catch a person’s head in a rear crash. Those are usually effective, but there’s no guarantee "It’s not just the head restraint but the seat architecture that determines what’s going to happen," says Adrian Lund, president of the IIHS.

Next steps in head restraints

While the federal government upgraded its head restraint rule in 2005, with the phase-in complete for the 2009 model year, Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, believes the new rule still falls short. For instance, it doesn’t require rear-seat head restraints but only says that if restraints are included for the outboard positions they must meet a height requirement. And center-rear head restraints still aren’t required at all. CU would like to see head restraints mandated for all rear seats, and that the back-set (the distance between the restraint and a passenger’s head) should be limited as well.

Making the adjustment

Correct head restraint adjustment

The top of a head restraint should reach as high as the top of your head if it will adjust that far, or at least as far as the top of your ears, and be set back no more than 4 inches from your head, as shown to the right.

Wrong head restraint adjustment

A head restraint that’s too low or too far back will not protect your head and neck in a crash. The four images below illustrate a typical impact.

Best ways to prevent whiplash

Not measuring up
As CR’s evaluations show, many rear seats have integrated head restraints that aren’t high

Not measuring up

As CR’s evaluations show, many rear seats have integrated head restraints that aren’t high enough to provide proper protection for average and tall people, and no restraint in the center position.

Buy a car with a good rear-crash rating

Check with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety ( for its front-seat ratings and with Consumer Reports’ monthly road-test reports for our rear-seat head restraint evaluations.

Adjust the head restraint

The top of it should reach at least as high as the top of your ears and as close as possible to the back of your head. If the restraint can be tilted forward, move it so that it’s no farther than 3 inches from your head; the closer, the better.

Always wear your safety belt

The belt helps you stay in position during a crash.

Sit upright

The head restraint can’t help if you are leaning to one side when a crash occurs.

Don’t tailgate

If the car in front of you stops suddenly, you won’t have to jam on your brakes, surprising the driver behind you. Leave plenty of room.

Position yourself for a crash

If you see a crash coming—or hear the squeal of tires behind you—and have time to react, lean back so that your head is touching the head restraint and look straight ahead. This will minimize any whiplash effect.

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