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Advocates turn up the heat on seat warmer dangers

During a winter like this one, many South Carolinians may thank our lucky stars that we have seat warmers in our cars. Even if hundreds of thousands of vehicles have been recalled because of overheating in seat warmers, they're still a comfort on a cold day, when you're stuck in traffic. But doctors specializing in burn treatment and safety advocates are teaming up to point out the inherent dangers of seat heaters to some people, going so far as to ask the federal regulators to label some heaters as defective products.

Seat heaters pose a serious risk to drivers and passengers who are paralyzed or disabled in other ways. They cannot feel when the seat warmer is too hot or only sense it when it's too late. Burn specialists report treating dozens of serious burns in this population. And, not only can it take months for someone in a wheelchair to heel, but the tissue -- the "integrity of the skin" -- can be permanently damaged.

And they do get hot. Doctors and fire safety experts advise heaters have a maximum temperature of 102 degrees, a standard many automakers have adopted. Some heaters can reach 120 degrees, a temperature that can quickly cause third-degree burns. A few even reach 160 degrees.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has issued recalls for seat warmers that pose a fire hazard, but the agency claims that seat heaters that exceed human tolerance do not warrant a recall. The burn risk isn't a defect, they say. Investigations have revealed no risk of fire, so no recalls were warranted. The NHTSA also says it hasn't received enough complaints for them to pursue the matter. The agency looks at "frequency and severity" of the problem to determine risk.

The doctors and safety experts want that to change. They want the NHTSA to treat the seat warmers that exceed 105 degrees as a defect. The group is also asking auto manufacturers to set a maximum temperature for seat warmers, to install timers that automatically turn off the warmers and t disconnect seat warmers for people with "lower body sensory deficits."

Some automakers are already in compliance with one or more of these measures. The safety advocates, it seems, will not rest until all have adopted safe standards and the NHTSA pays closer attention to the problem.

Source: USA Today, "Car seat heaters become safety target," Jayne O'Donnell, 02/22/11

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