Updated: Jun 5
Trent Svenningsen PT, B.Sc. F.C.A.M.T., Gunn IMS practitioner
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. Head restraints — also sometimes called headrests — don’t just give you a comfortable place to rest your head in the car; they play an important role in protecting the head and neck in a car accident and help prevent injuries like whiplash.
Whiplash head and neck injuries most often occur in rear-end vehicle collisions. 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, thus the term “whiplash”.
Head restraints are in every car on the road today, but how do you make sure you’re getting the most out of them when it comes to your safety? The following are tips on how to properly set and adjust the head restraint in your vehicle from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. They’re important, whether you’re a driver or a passenger:
First, head restraints, or car headrests, should be positioned high enough to support the driver or passenger’s head to minimize neck distortion. Adjust the head restraint so that it’s even with the top of your head. If it doesn'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 okay.
To minimize neck travel in an accident, the distance from the back of your head to the restraint should be as small as possible — preferably less than 4 inches. You want your head to hit the headrest in the event of a rear-end collision and stop there. Without a headrest, nothing is stopping your head until it hits the upper back.
Lastly, adjusting your seat’s recline angle could help shorten the distance between the head restraint and your head. You should be sitting in a position more like in an office chair rather than a recliner.