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Did You Know… Your Car’s Heated Seat Can Cause Severe Burns?

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Sean Kane, founder of Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., is calling on NHTSA and auto manufacturers to work together to make automobile seat heaters safer. In his paper on the subject, Mr. Kane points out that approximately 30% of vehicles on the road are equipped with heated seats, but despite the large number of vehicles affected, there is no safety standard or requirement to ensure they are set to tolerable temperatures.

In his article, Mr. Kane cites studies that have found seat heaters which produce up to 150 degree temperatures, which is more than enough to cause severe burns.

“Some manufacturers build maximum temperature points ranging from 86°F to 113° F into their designs. But, independent testing confirms that in the real world, seat surface temperatures can far exceed their maximum specifications – as well as human heat tolerances. A series of tests performed in 2009 on the seat heater of a 2007 Cadillac Escalade by the Kansas firm, Engineering Design and Testing Corp. showed that the seat heater greatly exceed the maximum temperature specifications. The researchers tested the surface temperatures of seat, while the heater was in the low and high setting; for periods of time ranging from 5-20 minutes; and at ambient temperatures of 70°F-90°F. Regardless of the test condition, the seat reached temperatures in excess of the maximum many manufacturers favor. At the seat heater’s lowest setting, the temperature topped out at 115°F after 20 minutes. But at the “high” setting, the seating surface, in places, reached temperatures ranging from 124°F to more than 150°F, depending on the length of time and the ambient temperature of the cabin.”

“In the late 1940s, Henriques and Moritz conducted several important studies on the subject . They documented a range of temperature vs. time of exposure for second degree burns. They reported second degree burns at 70°C (158°F) for a 1 second exposure; 60°C (140°F) for 5 seconds; to 52°C (126°F) for 90 seconds; and 44°C (111°F) at seven hours. They documented that third degree burns occur at temperatures around 49°C (120°F) within 10 minutes.”

Mr. Kane points out that most people are able to discern when the seat temperature exceeds their tolerance level, however those with sensory deficits in their lower extremities are at risk for severe burns. Those at risk include vehicle occupants with paralysis and other conditions that limit sensation including diabetes and neuropathy.

Paralyzed and other disabled drivers may not be able to sense the unbearable heat from some common seat heating systems.

Via USA Today:

The victims often don’t realize the heaters are on or that they are being burned until its far too late, advocates say. David Greenhalgh, a physician and chief of burns at Shriners Hospital for Children in Northern California, says it can take months for a wheelchair-bound person’s burns to heal. The "integrity of the skin" can be compromised for the rest of their lives, he says.

USA Today also provided some real life examples:

  • Cynthia Becker suffered 3rd degree burns from her Cadillac Eldorado on Christmas day 2001. Tests showed the heater reached 150 degrees.
  • David Pruessner was burned across his thighs in a 2004 Volvo S60.
  • Peggy Stephenson received 3rd degree burns while riding in a 2009 Ford Taurus rental car.

At 120 degrees, it takes only 10 minutes for 3rd degree burns to occur (according to a USA Today report).

"A seat heater that gets hot enough to scorch the seat" has a defect and should be recalled, Kane says.

Some of the recommendations Sean Kane and other safety advocates have made to reduce these devastating injuries include:

  • Manufacturers should limit the maximum seat heater temperatures to the limits of human heat tolerances and set all seat heaters on a timer. These time and temperature limits should be codified in an industry standard.
  • The mobility adapters and automakers’ mobility programs should develop a protocol to automatically disconnect seat heaters for disabled drivers with lower body sensory deficits.
  • The mobility adapters should immediately send out warnings to their customers alerting them to the dangers of seat heaters.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should re-examine its approach to seat heater defect investigations and regulations. The FDA sets temperature limits for some medical devices. The Consumer Product Safety Commission does not minimize the safety risk when consumers report even minor burns from a heating-generating product, such as an electric blanket. It persuades manufacturers of defective products with the potential to burn and catch fire to recall them. A seat heater that gets hot enough to scorch the seat should be considered a threat to auto safety. NHTSA should categorize seat heaters which exceed human tolerance as defective and require automakers to recall them.

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(c) Copyright 2011 Brett A. Emison

1 Comment

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  1. Jim Schalberg says:
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    Wait a minute….Isn’t third degree burs ….Black and crispy?

    if that were really the case wouldn’t everyone in Arizona die if they were outside for 10 Minutes?