WASHINGTON - Head restraints in some minivans inadequately protect people against neck injuries in rear-end crashes, the insurance industry said Sunday. Several automakers took issue with the latest test results.
Earning poor overall ratings were seven models subjected to a simulated crash: versions of the 2004-2006 model years of the Dodge Grand Caravan and its corporate twin, the Chrysler Town & Country; a version of the 2005-2006 Toyota Sienna; and four General Motors Corp. minivans from the 2005-2006 model years — the Chevrolet Uplander, Buick Terraza, Pontiac Montana SV6 and Saturn Relay.
The 2004-2006 Ford Freestar and Mercury Monterey received the highest rating, or good, from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
An edition of the Dodge Grand Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country with adjustable lumbar and head restraints got the second-highest rating, or acceptable. The 2005-06 Honda Odyssey received the second-lowest, or marginal.
"It's disappointing that so many minivan seats are rated poor for rear impact protection," said Adrian Lund, the institute's chief operating officer. "Drivers of minivans spend a lot of time on urban and suburban roads where rear-end collisions are common in stop-and-go traffic."
The minivans were tested on a crash simulation sled. It replicates the forces in a stationary vehicle that is struck in the rear by a similar vehicle at 20 mph.
Vehicles got a higher rating if the head restraint contacted the dummy's head quickly and the forces on the dummy's neck and the acceleration of the torso were low.
Max Gates, a DaimlerChrysler AG spokesman, said the Grand Caravan and Town & Country are "two of the safest vehicles on the road." He pointed to their top marks in the government's frontal and side impact crash tests.
"No single test, including the new rear impact test developed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, can determine a vehicle's overall safety performance," Gates said.
A Toyota spokeswoman, Allison Takahashi, said Toyota conducts extensive internal testing of the head restraint system. She said Toyota's seats incorporate a system that is designed to help reduce neck injuries in rear-end collisions.
"The protection provided by Toyota's seating systems has always been among the best in the world," she said.
GM spokesman Alan Adler said the automaker's head restraints are engineered to offer high levels of safety. He said the institute's test is "extremely sensitive to variation and can result in different ratings in the same vehicle, such as when one has leather-covered seats and the other has cloth-covered seats."
The testing also evaluated the height of the restraint and its horizontal distance behind the back of the head of an average-size man. A head restraint should extend at least as high as the top of the ears of the tallest motorist and be placed close to the back of the head so the restraint can support it early in a rear-end crash, the institute said.
Models that received poor or marginal scores for the restraint design were given poor overall marks because they could not be positioned to protect many motorists, the institute said.
Those vehicles included the 2003-2005 Chevrolet Astro; the 2004-2005 Dodge Grand Caravan with fixed head restraints; the 2003-2005 GMC Safari; the 2004-2006 Mazda MPV; the 2004-2006 Nissan Quest; and the 2005-2006 Toyota Sienna models without adjustable lumbar.
Lund said many mothers frequently drive minivans, and women tend to be more vulnerable to whiplash injuries, which account for about 2 million insurance claims annually.