How to check and adjust your car head restraint

Maria McCarthy / 18 November 2019

If your car has a standard or active head rest it's vital that it should be adjusted correctly for each occupant to avoid whiplash.



We all know how vital it is to fasten our seatbelts at the start of a drive and ensure that all occupants are safely strapped in. But do you realise how important it is to also check your head restraint (otherwise known as a head rest) and the head rests of your passengers to guard against whiplash injuries? 

How to adjust your car’s head restraints

• Position your car head restraint as high as your head

• Tilt the head rest as close to your head as you can. Touching the head is best.

• If the head restraint is not adjustable, making the seat more upright can help.

• Remember to adjust the head rest for each rear occupant on every journey.

What is whiplash?

Whiplash injuries can be long-lasting, difficult to diagnose and treat, and extremely debilitating. They most often occur as the result of a low-speed rear-end collision.

'When a car is hit from behind the head and body of the driver and passengers move backwards', explains Matthew Avery, safety research director at Thatcham Research, the motor insurers' automotive research centre. 'The body is supported by the seating, so its movement is limited but the head sharply rotates back with respect to the body in an 'S' shape, until it is stopped by the head restraint. This causes a hyperextension of the neck and a 'whiplash' effect. The head restraint needs to be behind the head so the head and body move together and you don't have that differential.'

'Women tend to be more vulnerable to whiplash injuries as they have a more slender and hence weaker neck structure,' adds Matthew. 'And the over 55s are also more at risk.'

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How car seats have improved

Thatcham Research works to improve car safety. 'We'd been collaborating with manufacturers on ways to reduce fatalities in forward crashes, such as improved airbags,' says Matthew. 'But as rear crashes tend to have an average speed of 10mph and aren't fatal they had less attention. However whiplash injuries can be very uncomfortable and 1% of those affected are in pain for life so we realised this was an important area to focus on. Our work in the early 2000s on rear end crashes and whiplash was pioneering and successfully encouraged carmakers to focus on seat design to support driver's necks.'

There are three different types of head restraint. The standard and active head rests need to be adjusted for different occupants, whilst the WHIPS seat is suitable for all adults without adjustment.

Standard head restraint

Standard head restraints have improved over the years with the seats and head rests now at a more appropriate height to protect occupants. 'If you look at a VW Golf from 1992 and one from 2019, they're totally different,' says Matthew. 'Both the seat backs and head restraints are taller and more suitable for offering protection.'

Active head restraint

Active head restraints have a pressure plate and a pivot system. When there's a collision the active head restraint is triggered and moves towards the occupant's head creating an earlier contact time between the two and a longer period of support for the head during an accident.

WHIPS seat

WHIPS seats have a fixed integral head restraint which cannot be adjusted as the entire seat back has been designed to offer good geometry and protect any adult occupant from whiplash injuries.

'Saab has been at the forefront of developing the Active head restraint whilst Volvo is the leader for the WHIPS Seat,' says Matthew Avery. 'Both are better than the standard head restraint but of the two WHIPS is preferable'.

Secret car features

The importance of adjusting your head restraint or head rest

If your car has a standard or active head rest it's vital that it should be adjusted correctly for each occupant. If your car is driven by different family members, or if you have various friends and family in the back seat, that might feel like an extra job at first, but once you've established the habit it'll be as natural as doing up your seat belt.

'We'd recommend that the headrest is positioned as high as the head,' says Matthew.' Where possible it should also be tilted as close to the head as you can. Touching the head is best. In cars where the head restraint is not adjustable, making the seat more upright can help. It’s also really important to remember that whiplash can occur in the back seat as well, so remember to adjust for each rear occupant. And if you have a variety of passengers then check and adjust accordingly. No two passengers are the same and it needs to be tailored to fit them on every journey.'

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has a useful visual guide.

For children, the ideal is a high back booster seat where they are fully enclosed, but if the child is in a low back booster seat then adjust the headrest as you would for an adult.

When buying your next car, whether that's a new or second-hand model, it's important to check out its safety ratings. You can do this at thatcham.org - enter the make and model and you'll be taken to an assessment of the vehicles car security, safety features and seat/head restraints rated on their ability to prevent whiplash on a scale between good to poor.

The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) has campaigned on the importance of checking head restraints. Brett Dixon, immediate past president of APIL said, 'Half of all car crashes in England result in a whiplash injury and some of these could be avoided, along with the resulting compensation claims. Your headrest can’t do its job if you haven’t adjusted it to fit you. It’s like leaving the batteries out of a smoke detector.'


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.