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Rear-facing car seats are safest—even if you’re hit from behind, says study

It makes sense that in a head-on or side-impact crash, a rear-facing car seat would be the way to go, but many parents have wondered about the effectiveness of rear-facing seats in rear-impact crashes.

Is a rear-facing seat still as safe if you’re rear-ended?

A new study out of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center has proved that the answer is yes.

Rear-facing car seats are the best bet for babies in all kinds of crashes, even rear-enders.

“It’s a question that parents ask me a lot, because they’re concerned about the child facing the impact of the crash,” says Julie Mansfield, lead author of the study and research engineer at Ohio State College of Medicine’s Injury Biomechanics Research Center. “Even though the child is facing the direction of the impact, it doesn’t mean that a rear-facing car seat isn’t going to do its job.”

Rear-impact crashes only account for a bit more than 25% of crashes the researchers note, and they’re actually less dangerous for children than front-end collisions. The researchers knew from real-world accident reports that rear-facing car seats are protecting kids in these rear-impact crashes, but the study is important because the bulk of previous crash-test research had focused on front and side collisions, so some parents wondered whether kids in rear-facing seats were at risk for head and neck injuries in rear-facing collisions, when an impact might push them into back of the front seat.

The team tested four car seats: two infant seats (Evenflo Embrace and the Maxi Cosi Mico AP/Mico Max 30) and two convertible seats (one from diono and one from Safety 1st convertible), Reuters reports.

The study, published in SAE International, shows (that when used correctly) all four seats kept the heads, necks, and spines of little crash test dummies aligned, and supported the fake children during impact. The results are consistent with the data gathered after real-world accidents: When parents follow directions, rear-facing seats do well in rear-impact crashes.

That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends infants and toddlers ride in a rear-facing seat until they’re at least two years old (and preferably longer if their car seat allows it).

The study’s findings and the AAP recommendations make total sense to Allana Pinkerton, the Global Safety Advocate for and Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician with diono. She suggests parents keep kids rear-facing as long as possible, until they max out of the height and weight restrictions. With a convertible or 3-in-1 option, that could mean they’ll be as big as 50 pounds or 49 inches tall before you turn them around.

"Rear facing puts a child in the optimal position during a crash,” Pinkerton says in a statement emailed to Motherly, in which she echos Mansfield’s recommendations and the AAP’s.

Experts aren’t the only ones who say rear-facing seats can save a child: Parents who’ve been in a heart-stopping collision know it’s true. Chris Burlile and his wife Aimee were recently hit by another vehicle when they were on the way to the store with their 12-week-old daughter, Amelia. “We did about a full 360,” he recalls. “We hit the grass embankment we ended up rolling down the hill.”

The Burliles’ credit Amelia’s rear-facing car seat with protecting her tiny, vulnerable head and neck during the crash. The car was totaled, but their baby wasn’t hurt. “She was strapped down pretty tight, so there wasn't a lot of separation [between] her and the seat,” says Burlile, who adds that when the car rolled, because Amelia was buckled in so tight, she was just surrounded by padding on all sides.

He’s thankful he and Aimee took the time to learn how to install their carseat and follow the recommendations. Mansfield hopes other parents do the same.

“Hopefully this data can help show them that despite their child facing the direction of impact in this scenario, these seats still have the ability to keep their child very safe,” she says.

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