Impacts to passengers from loose and improperly packed cargo in automobiles can and do contribute to injuries in traffic accidents. Just like unrestrained passengers, unrestrained objects in your car will respond to the laws of physics and fly about the cabin during emergency avoidance maneuvers, sudden stops and crashes. The unique problem with restraining cargo, such as groceries, tool boxes and child safety equipment, in vehicles such as minivans, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and passenger vehicles, has never been fully addressed by vehicle manufacturers. These loose objects become projectiles and can injure passengers during even moderate impacts.
No crashworthiness safety standards exist for U.S. vehicles dealing specifically with the issue of cargo retention. As a vehicle owner, you cannot assume that the manufacturer took the time to design a proper cargo retention system in your vehicle. Heavy items, such as vehicle jacks and spare tires, must be properly secured, at minimum, with the factory-supplied attachments to ensure they do not break free during crashes. Unfortunately, an almost intuitive knowledge of the hazard is required for most people in order to recognize that an unrestrained heavy object can pose an injury to passenger vehicle occupants.
Other countries address this hazard through legislation and regulation. European standards, such as E/ECE/324, E/ECE/TRANS/505, Regulation No. 17, specifically address this hazard for vehicles manufactured subsequent to 1995. The European standards include specially designed tests to ensure that the cargo areas in rear sections of passenger vehicles, minivans and SUVs, as well as seat backs in ordinary passenger cars, are of sufficient strength to handle impact loads of foreseeable objects in those storage areas.
Furthermore, many vehicles have folding and latching seat backs designed for access into the trunk. The latches on this type of seat back have been known to fail during an accident, usually as a result of cargo. The failure of the latches produced serious injuries. European safety standards specifically address this critical aspect of crash safety which, unfortunately, the United States Safety Standards ignore.
MICHAEL MARKUSHEWSKI, BSMET, is a crashworthiness expert at ARCCA and a recognized leader in the field of occupant protection.