Are Third-Row Seats Safe for Children?

Consider rear-impact collisions before putting your kids, or anyone you love, in the third-row seat.

2017 Kia Sorento SX Limited

If you’ve overlooked the 2017 Kia Sorento in your quest for a new family-sized crossover SUV, you’re doing yourself a tremendous disservice.

It is a terrific vehicle, sized between the traditional compact and midsize SUV segments, stylish, comfortable, and enjoyable to drive. It meets a wide range of budget requirements, and when loaded with every option, could easily pass for a luxury SUV except for the Kia badge on the center of the steering wheel.

Plus, it gets the highest possible crash-protection ratings from the federal government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and for 2017 Kia further stepped up the Sorento’s game by installing an automatic emergency braking system on every trim level as standard or optional equipment.

This is an SUV I can easily recommend to families. But I have a concern, and that relates to the Sorento’s third-row seat design.

When the Sorento’s third-row seat is in use, the head restraints are nearly flush against the rear window, and the seatback is less than two feet from the rear liftgate. Knowing that lots of people buy crossover SUVs and that lots of people prefer models with third-row seats and that lots of people choose crossover SUVs with third-row seats because they plan to carry kids back there, I got to thinking about whether or not people consider the safety ramifications of their choice.

2017 Kia Sorento third-row seat
In the Kia Sorento, the third-row seat head restraints nearly touch the rear window glass.

When I was growing up, my family had a station wagon with rear-facing third-row seats. We didn’t use them often, but occasionally my dad would pop them open and let my brother and I ride back there, smiling and waving to the people who were following us. I don’t believe it occurred to him that another driver could smash into the back of our Ford Gran Torino Country Squire, showering us with glass and crushing us with sheetmetal.

I’m not trying to be dramatic. Have you ever seen what the back of a parked car looks like after another vehicle has hit it at no more than moderate speed? I see it all of the time, because Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, California has lots of cars parked close to the highway and they get hit on a regular basis. Depending on the speed of the errant vehicle and the angle of impact, the parked car’s trunk vanishes, the metal pushed right up to the rear wheels.

This is a cutaway view of a Ford Transit Connect Wagon. (I know. Nobody buys these. The point here is to illustrate how third-row seats are usually located in a vehicle’s rear crush zone, and Ford has this excellent image to help show the problem.)

Ford Transit Connect seating
In most three-row SUVs and minivans, the third-row seat is effectively located within the rear-impact collision crush zone.

If seven people are seated in this vehicle’s three rows of seats, and the driver is stopped at an intersection, and somebody plows into the back of it, where will the crash energy go?

Because I’ve got kids, I wanted a definitive answer to the following question: Are third-row seats safe for children? I reached out to Russ Rader, Senior Vice President, Communications, for the IIHS:

Hi Russ,

I write for a number of outlets, including the N.Y. Daily News, Car Gurus, and J.D. Power Cars. I am a regular user of the IIHS website and ratings, and when I review vehicles I always discuss IIHS test results, whenever they are available. 

As of late, I’ve become increasingly concerned about the third-row seats that are installed in so many SUVs, and even in minivans. For example, the Kia Sorento’s third-row headrests are almost touching the rear window glass.

Because so many families buy vehicles like the Sorento specifically because of the third-row seat, and because the third-row seat is usually inhospitable to adults and relegated to children, I’ve started talking about the lack of crush zone space between the third-row seat and the rear of the vehicle in order to educate parents who might be considering such vehicles about the potential danger of placing children so close to the rear of the vehicle.

Long story short, how much space is required, on average, behind the rearmost seating in a vehicle to allow adequate crush space for a rear-collision when the vehicle is hit from behind? Do minivans have enough? Do SUVs and crossovers have too little? Is it entirely dependent on the type of vehicle, and the underlying structure?

I don’t think people with children are thinking about this when they put their kids in the third-row seat.

Thanks!

Chris

Mr. Rader kindly responded:

Hi Chris,

IIHS has looked at the statistics periodically and deaths in the third row in serious crashes are relatively rare.  Rear-end crashes are usually low-severity events at low speeds. That said, the safest place for children in a 3-row vehicle is in the center row. The third row should be the second choice if there are too many children for the number of seating positions in the middle row.

We haven’t conducted high-speed rear-end crash tests of 3-row vehicles, again, because this is not a common type of crash in the real world. 

Let me know if you need more info.

Russ Rader

This is an understandable response. In most rear-impact collisions, speeds are low, such as in a parking lot. At higher speeds, the person that causes the accident has most likely slammed on the brakes, the front end of his or her car diving and sliding under the vehicle that is hit. Therefore, “deaths in the third row in serious crashes are relatively rare” because “rear-end crashes are usually low-severity events at low speeds.”

Still, they do happen. And Mr. Rader confirms that the safest place for kids, or for any passengers, in any 3-row vehicle is the center row of seats.

2017 Kia Sorento SX Limited
If you need to carry more than five people, choose a model that offers the greatest distance between the third-row seat and the rear of the vehicle.

Keep this in mind when you’re shopping for a safe vehicle in which to transport your family. If you find that you must regularly shuttle more than five passengers, try to choose a model that puts some distance between the third-row seat and the back of the vehicle, like a minivan or a full-size, extended-length SUV such as a Chevrolet Suburban, Ford Expedition EL, or GMC Yukon XL.

If you’re disinterested in owning a minivan or gigantic SUV, and you buy a midsize crossover like the Kia Sorento, consider taking a second car to your destination when you’ve got a group of more than five passengers, instead of cramming everyone aboard a single vehicle.

While it is unlikely that someone is going to plow into the back of you while you’re stopped at an intersection, or you’ve come around a freeway curve to a mess of stopped traffic and you need to brake hard in front of other drivers who are not paying close attention, or you’ve parked in a parallel space along Pacific Coast Highway and just loaded everyone up after a day at the beach right before someone loses control and hits your parked SUV, it could happen.

If you’ve rolled the dice and lost, forgiving yourself could be a long time in coming.

Photos copyright Speedy Daddy Media, Inc., except Ford Transit Connect, which is supplied by Ford.

Author: Christian Wardlaw

A driving enthusiast and father of four, I've got 20 years of experience working in automotive journalism. Currently, I serve as the editor and content strategist for the New York Daily News Autos section, and contribute content to Car Gurus and J.D. Power Cars. When I'm not working, I'm doing something fun with my family, preferably in Hawaii.

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