Jayne O'Donnell and Meghan Hoyer, USA TODAY
Auto industry officials are drafting recommendations to prevent car-seat heaters from burning people.
At the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's request, a Society of Automotive Engineers committee began meeting last March to determine the top temperature seat heaters should reach, consider automatic shut-off features and decide whether indicator lights should be in standard locations in vehicles.
NHTSA made the request after USA TODAY reported in 2011 that safety advocate Sean Kane and doctors including Shriners Hospitals chief of burns David Greenhalgh planned to ask the agency to require automakers to make seat heaters less dangerous to those with sensory deprivation.
Paraplegics and quadriplegics typically can't tell how hot the seats are or even if the heaters are on - and in rare cases have been injured.
NHTSA chief David Strickland told Kane in May 2011 that the "rate of alleged injury due to seat heaters is extremely low" and didn't demonstrate "an unreasonable safety risk." But Kane thinks even if there is no fire or crash, the fact that heaters are burning people should constitute a defect and lead to recalls.
Since 1984, there have been more than 1,260 complaints to NHTSA regarding seat heaters, nearly all of them about overheating. Those cases involved injuries to 287 people, and at least 512 reported fires.
There have also been nine seat-heater recalls.
Complaints peaked in the early 2000s and have slowed to two or fewer in each of the last four years, even though seat heaters are often offered now in even lower-end models. Some seat heater buttons can easily be turned on inadvertently.
Tommy Fristedt, founder of Michigan-based consulting firm Automotive Seat Climate Craft, says it can often take three or more winters before the heaters begin to degrade, which can cause them to overheat.
That may help explain why several victims were burned years after they bought the vehicles. Marshall Hicks, a 30-year-old paraplegic, was burned Dec. 20 while driving his 2007 Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck from his home in Cleburne, Texas, to Dallas, according to his lawyer, Daniel DeFeo of Missouri.
DeFeo, who is preparing a lawsuit against General Motors, says Hicks - like two of DeFeo's other injured clients - purchased the truck as part of GM's mobility program, which retrofits vehicles for handicapped drivers.
"GM knew the issue with all three but did nothing to protect them," says DeFeo, who calls the burns "an easily avoidable injury."
GM would not comment. The company started to put seat-heater warnings in 2010 model year vehicles' owner's manuals and has them in all manuals for models with seat heaters now.
The industry committee has met 17 times in less than a year, according to the SAE website, which shows members include GM front seat expert Diane McQueen. Andrew Smart, SAE's director of industry relations and business development, says the group is "very active." and has more than 30 members, but would not comment further.
Fristedt says the industry action may be just in time.
"As heated seats become more common, the industry will have to make more durable systems, because they pay a fortune for heated-seat quality issues," he says. "This will hopefully drive the industry to take heated seats more seriously."