The problem of unrestrained cargo in vehicles is an issue that has been known about for years but has not been sufficiently addressed by the federal government and the auto industry in the US. If cargo is not adequately restrained, it can shift during vehicle maneuvering, braking and, most dangerously, in a crash. While minor shifting can occur without any problems, there have been many instances where unrestrained cargo has been responsible for injuries to vehicle occupants. As an example, ARCCA was involved in a case where a child returning home with his parents after a hockey game was paralyzed in a frontal crash. The child’s hockey bag had been placed in the trunk, and the child was in the back seat wearing his seat belt. A frontal vehicle crash caused the hockey bag to break through the seat and injure the child’s back due to poorly-designed seat back retention latches.
Clearly, in order to protect occupants, the cargo must either be held securely in place or, if unsecured, it must be prevented from entering the occupant’s space by providing an effective barrier between the occupants and the cargo itself.
Some examples of provisions implemented by the auto industry that could theoretically prevent interaction between cargo and vehicle occupants include:
- The rear seatback and package shelf, which should act as a “bulkhead” between the trunk and the occupant compartment in virtually all passenger vehicles if this area is built to sufficient strength. This is reduced to just the seatback alone for station wagons and SUVs.
- The metal bulkhead in pick-up trucks, which consists of two metal structures – one is the front of the cargo box and the other is the rear of the cab. Again, this assumes that the structure is adequate.
- Structural metal barriers in some utility/cargo vans to separate the cargo from the occupant space.
- Spare tires bolted to the trunk floor in all passenger vehicles that have a spare tire, assuming the tire fits in this area.
The requirement for bolting the spare tire to the trunk floor is the only one found in the federal standards, and that requirement entails having the tire remain securely attached during 30 mph frontal barrier crashes. However, none of the other provisions, such as the rear seatbacks, the bulkhead in pick‑up trucks, and the cargo barriers in vans, have any testing and evaluation requirements at all. In contrast to this, much more stringent regulations are in effect in Europe, where European regulation ECE‑17 requires frontal 30 mph crash tests to be conducted with at least two blocks in the trunk area, each weighing ~39.7 lbs. (18 kg), to evaluate the capability of the cargo retention system in preventing cargo from interacting with, and causing injury to, the vehicle occupants. For the safety of the US motoring public, such requirements should be mandated for vehicles sold in this country as well.
LOUIS D’AULERIO, BAP, is a crash safety expert and one of the nation’s leading authorities regarding occupant crash protection in both air and ground vehicles. He specializes in issues related to seat belts, airbags and seating systems for both adults and children.