A Deeper Dive: Rear-Facing CRs Touching Seatbacks in Front of Them

Rear-facing car seat lightly touching the seatback of the front seat.

As CPSTs know, following CR instructions is essential. A few other considerations are equally important, including following the vehicle instructions and addressing the safety needs of all passengers. Whenever CR instructions intersect with these other considerations, CPSTs must carefully consider all aspects when advising caregivers. “Seatback touching” is such a situation, so this article looks at some of the related considerations.

Dorel now requires a CR used rear facing in an outboard seating position to touch the vehicle seat in front of it. While SRN is unaware of any other CR manufacturer with this requirement, many brands allow their rear-facing CRs to touch in this way. In these cases, touching the seatback in front of the CR isn’t preferred, but the manufacturer will allow it to accommodate installation in vehicles with limited fore-aft space in the rear. (One company, Evenflo, requires a 1.5-inch gap between a RF-only CR installed in an outboard position and a front seat; this longstanding policy exists to protect the child if the vehicle experiences a severe rear-impact collision, which could cause some front seats to deform backward. Find more on this topic on the FAQ page here.)

CPSTs should take the following points into account whenever a rear-facing CR touches the vehicle seatback in front of it, whether this condition is required or simply allowed.

Touching is intended to be light

The word “touch” in this context demands further examination because it could apply to an array of conditions ranging from slightly grazing to firmly pressing. While no manufacturer intends to allow touching at the maximum of this spectrum, how much pressure is too much?

Some manufacturers that allow touching provide insight into this question by saying the CR may “lightly” touch the seatback. Although Dorel’s new instructions do not include this modifier, all CR manufacturers that SRN has spoken to, including Dorel, have described the degree of seatback touching they allow as “light,” particularly if the contact is with a front seat.

Therefore, whether stated this way in instructions or not, CPSTs would be wise to advise caregivers to allow a rear-facing CR to touch lightly. If a rear-facing CR that is allowed to touch the seatback in front cannot fit in the space without pressing on that seat more than lightly, the situation warrants checking with the CR and vehicle manufacturers. In other words, do not take the vagueness of the word “touch” in instructions to convey permission for a CR to press firmly against a seat in front. (An exception is on a school bus, where the covers of regulated seatbacks flex easily.)

What does lightly touching look like?

Although specifying that the CR should touch the seatback lightly is very helpful—clearly excluding many inappropriate scenarios in which the touch is too firm, like wedging or squeezing—lightly is also a term that’s open to interpretation.

Generally speaking, check for these conditions:

  • The CR sits naturally on the vehicle seat cushion (not lifted off by the seatback).
  • Pressure from the seatback against the CR is not helping the CR pass the 1-inch test for installation tightness.
  • The seatback is in no way bending or warping the CR shell.

To test these conditions, confirm that the CR angle and installation remain the same when the seatback is moved or folded forward (no longer touching). Even when these conditions are met, use good judgment; if the touch seems to be more than light, continue to assess the situation for issues discussed later in this article.

Bracing is not lightly touching

SRN has heard some CPSTs use “bracing,” another term to describe touch, in a way that suggests the goal is to install a rear-facing CR so it is braced against the back of the seat in front.

But the word “brace” means to make something stronger or firmer, so in this application, it would imply exerting enough pressure to affect a CR’s installation. This is inappropriate. Manufacturers have not stated that the purpose of touching the seatback in front is to stabilize the CR, and doing so could defy vehicle instructions (as discussed in the next section).

Therefore, “bracing” is not an advisable term to use when describing CR installation in rear seats. Some people who use this term may mistakenly believe “brace” is synonymous with “lightly touch.” Others may have formed a misunderstanding by conflating these instructions with policies common in Sweden, where bracing a rear-facing CR against the front dashboard is indeed recommended (a practice that is clearly inappropriate for the vehicles and CRs of North America). Either way, it would be helpful for CPSTs to avoid using this term to describe an appropriate way for rear-facing CRs to interact with a seatback.

Vehicle instructions may limit pressure

A key reason to limit how hard a CR pushes against a front seat is that the pressure could negatively affect vehicle safety systems. Modern front seats house important electronics, including sensors that regulate front air bag deployment. Pressing against the front seat can damage safety features and, in some cases, send dangerously incorrect input to sensors.

A vehicle manual’s air bag section will address the issue of pressure against the seatback when pressure is limited or not allowed. (Some manuals even state how much weight may be placed in seatback pockets.) The LATCH Manual can also help. Find information about whether the vehicle manufacturer prohibits pressure against either or both front seats under the heading Advanced Air Bag Suppression System in the bullets section at the beginning of each entry in Appendix B.

If a vehicle maker prohibits firm pressure against a seatback, is there an objective way to assess whether lightly touching the seatback is acceptable? Although standardized guidance doesn’t exist, a rule of thumb that a Honda engineer shared with SRN is to aim for the amount of pressure that would allow a piece of paper placed between the CR (with child seated) and the seatback to be pulled out easily and intact.

Even if a CR is judged to be touching a seatback only lightly, advise caregivers to keep tabs on the air bag dashboard light to ensure it displays “on” and “off” in the appropriate circumstances, as conditions change over time.

Maintain belt fit for front seat occupants

As a rule, an occupant’s seat belt fit should always be checked if their seat is adjusted to accommodate a nearby CR. Improper belt fit for another occupant is not an acceptable tradeoff for CR installation.

In some situations, rolling a seat back to make it touch a CR (i.e., to follow Dorel’s instructions) can diminish safety for the passenger seated in front of the CR. For instance, the shift may move the occupant’s shoulder out of contact with the shoulder belt. Rearranging the occupants’ seating locations might help, but the situation may be an example of incompatibility.

CPSTs often educate expectant caregivers, so they should give particular attention to maintaining belt fit for pregnant occupants. Click here to learn about proper seat belt fit during pregnancy.