Most people don't give head restraints a second thought when climbing into a car, and even fewer would count them as a safety feature. But think again. Head restraints don't just hinder rear visibility and give you a comfortable place to rest your head; they play an important role in protecting the head and neck in a crash and help prevent injuries like whiplash.
Whiplash head and neck injuries most often occur in rear-end collisions and a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study estimates that between 1988 and 1996 there were 805,581 whiplash injuries each year. When a car is hit from behind, it is pushed forward, causing the seatback to push against the occupant's torso and move the torso forward as well. As a result, an unsupported head lags behind the torso until its neck can catch up and then whip the head forward.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, neck sprains and strains are the most frequently reported insurance claim injuries, and the agency puts the cost of these claims at around $8.8 billion each year, or 25 percent of the total dollars paid for all crash injuries combined.
"People can experience severe crashes with no neck injury if there is little or no movement of the head relative to the torso," IIHS said in a statement.
NHTSA began mandating head restraints in the front outboard seats of all new cars in 1969; it extended the mandate to pickups, vans and SUVs in 1991. Automakers are not required by law to include them in the backseat, however.
So, head restraints are in just about every car on the road today, but how do you make sure you're getting the most out of them? The following are tips on how to properly set and adjust your head restraint from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:
Head restraints should be positioned high enough to support the head so as to minimize neck distortion.
Adjust the head restraint so that it's even with the top of your head. If it won't reach the top of your head, make it as high as it will go. For people on the short side, no adjustment from the lowest setting is needed. If it's higher than the top of your head in the unadjusted position, that's OK, too.
To minimize neck travel in an accident, the distance from the back of the head to the restraint should be as small as possible — preferably less than 4 inches.
Adjusting your seat's recline angle could help shorten the distance between the head restraint and your head.
IIHS graphic; Cars.com photos by Evan Sears