The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working on recommendations that would stop car-seat heaters from causing burn injuries. In March, at NHTSA’s request, a committee of the Society of Automotive Engineers began meeting to figure out what are the highest temperatures these seat heaters can safely reach. The committee also is looking at possible automatic shut-off features and indicator lights.
There have been over 1,260 complaints to the federal agency about seat heaters in the past three decades, with yearly figures peaking about a decade ago (now, the NHTSA receives 2-4 complaints annually). The majority of all the complaints have been about overheating and involved at least 287 injuries and 512 fires.
Quadriplegics, paraplegics, and others with sensory issues usually can’t sense how hot a heated car seat is, which can up their risk of burn injury. Other people who also might be at higher risk of burn injuries include the elderly, who may have less sensation, children, diabetics, and people on certain medications.
In 2011, NHTSA administrator David Strickland said that he considered alleged injury rate from seat heaters to be “extremely low” and he did not see this auto device to be a significant safety risk. He was responding to Safety Research & Strategies President and Founder Sean Kane’s assessment that the agency should identify certain car seat heaters as an auto defect and that recalls should be made. It was after Kane and Dr. David Greenhalgh, who is a burn physician and co-authored a 2003 study on seat heaters, wrote NHTSA about their concerns that the federal agency started its own seat heater analysis.
Dr. Greenhalgh reportedly treated one patient who sustained third-degree burns after sitting on a car seat that had a heater that went as high as 120 degrees in one area. It just takes just 10 minutes at that temperature for a burn injury to happen.
Meantime, USA Today reports that according to Automatic Seat Climate Craft founder Tommy Fristedt, the seat heaters may take a few years to degrade, which is when they might be more prone to overheat. This could be the reason why a number of seat heater burn injury victims didn’t get hurt until years after they bought their vehicle.
One burn injury victim, Marshall Hicks, sustained a burn injury last winter while driving his 2007 Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck. Hicks, 30, is a paraplegic. He plans to sue General Motors for auto products liability. He believes that the automaker knew there was a problem with the seat heaters but did nothing to prevent the injury, which was “easily avoidable.” It wasn’t until 2010 that GM began including seat-heater warnings in its vehicle owner manuals.
This year, plaintiff Erica Davis won $500,000 in her car seat heater lawsuit for her burn injuries. Davis is a paraplegic who claims she sustained serious burns while riding her Chevy truck in 2009. The burns extended several inches from her buttock to her thigh and to this day she still has pain. The burn injury scars are permanent. In April, she won her verdict against Chase and Shellworth Chevrolet.