IIHS Finds Back Seat Passenger Safety Lacking in Most Midsize SUVs

Midsize crossover utility vehicles often serve as the family vehicle of choice. But unlike sedans, these vehicles have unique safety challenges based on their design and profile. One of the challenges is rear-seat passenger protection, an area recently tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The Institute analyzed 13 models and found that just four earned good ratings.

Frontal Crash Protection for Rear-Seated Passengers

For its evaluation, the Institute put the affected vehicles through a frontal crash protection test. While the IIHS found that most models supply satisfactory protection for the driver and front passenger, the majority also fell short when protecting rear-seated passengers. In particular, the Institute updated its venerable moderate overlap front crash analysis to include a back seat passenger dummy seated behind the driver.

Specifically, the Institute modified its testing to include the rear seated dummy following research that showed the improvements for the front row safety usually have not translated to the remainder of the cabin. Notably, since 2007, the probability of a fatal injury remains 46 percent higher for belted passengers in the rear than in the front. Thus, the new test seeks to help consumers learn which models pass muster, receiving a “good” rating if they do.

For the new test, the Institute used a Hybrid III dummy. This model is roughly the size of a 12-year-old child or small woman seated immediately behind the driver. For this test, the Institute employs metrics that concentrate on the injuries most typically experienced by such passengers.

Making the IIHS Grade

To achieve a good rating, data recorded by sensors in the rear-seated dummy may not push past limits demonstrating an unwarranted threat of harm to the head, neck, chest, abdomen, or thigh. The Institute combines video footage and grease paint applied to the mannequin’s head to determine contact. This may include the dummy’s head hitting the vehicle interior or sliding under the seatbelt, resulting in abdominal injuries. The mannequin is also affixed with a pressure sensor that monitors the position of the shoulder belt on the torso, which is a way to measure the risk of chest injuries.

“Zeroing in on weaknesses in rear seat safety is an opportunity to make big gains in a short time, since solutions that are already proven to work in the front can successfully be adapted for the rear,” said IIHS Senior Research Engineer Marcy Edwards, who led the development of the updated test. “The four good ratings in this round of testing show that some automakers are already doing it.”

IIHS Scores the SUVs

The Institute’s 13 tested vehicles are as follows and grouped according to grade:


Ford Explorer
Ford Mustang Mach-E
Subaru Ascent
Tesla Model Y


Chevrolet Traverse
Toyota Highlander
Volkswagen Atlas


Honda Pilot
Hyundai Palisade
Jeep Grand Cherokee
Jeep Wrangler Four-Door
Mazda CX-9
Nissan Murano

IIHS Midsize SUV
Right click to view chart.

The worst performer, though, maybe the Jeep Wrangler. While other models in the “poor” category registered a high risk of head or neck injuries to back seat passengers, the Jeep’s risk of the same was significant. The Institute pointed out that the Wrangler lacks a side curtain airbag in the rear and found that the lap belt shifted from the pelvis to the abdomen during the test.

Substantial Risk of Injuries

Finally, all 13 models performed well corresponding to the initial front seat criteria. However, not all were without flaws. For example, in the VW Atlas, measurements taken from the driver dummy indicated a substantial risk of injuries to the right leg of the driver. In the Chevy Traverse, the driver dummy’s head struck the steering wheel hard through the airbag. Moreover, in the Wrangler, the driver’s side airbag did not deploy.

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Matt Keegan
Author: Matthew Keegan
Matt Keegan is a journalist, media professional, and owner of this website. He has an extensive writing background and has covered the automotive sector continuously since 2004. When not driving and evaluating new vehicles, Matt enjoys spending his time outdoors.

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