Nearly a year after NBC Bay Area and NBC Los Angeles first reported on complaints of "popping" headrests in some vehicles sold by Fiat Chrysler, a federal agency is taking a closer look at the potential problem.
Some vehicle headrests are designed to pop open in the event of a crash. The 'popping' action is intended to prevent whiplash. But some of the headrests are popping open randomly − without a crash. Federal investigators are now asking why.
Shawn Alger told NBC Bay Area he wound up in a hospital emergency room with a concussion after his Jeep's driver-side headrest burst open one morning, while he was driving near Sacramento.
"All of a sudden, I felt like I was hit in the back of the head," Alger said. "I was freaked out a little. I was like, 'What, is somebody in the car?' And I looked back. There was nobody back there. There were no cars behind me.
Laura Baca shared a similar experience with NBC Los Angeles. She says she was parked when her Chrysler's headrest popped.
"I was just sitting there on the phone, and I all of a sudden got hit in the back of the head," Baca said. It pushed me completely forward."
After our report first aired in November 2018, NBC Bay Area heard from other drivers around the country. We connected them with NBC stations in Texas, North Carolina, and Connecticut to share their stories.
Barbara Savoie of Enfield, Connecticut, reached out to us about her 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee. She says a headrest popped open while the vehicle was unoccupied. It's been replaced, but she still has reservations about getting in the driver's seat.
"I'm scared," Savoie said. "If I'm driving down the highway doing 55, 65 miles an hour, and that thing blows, I could get into an accident and hurt someone else."
Just days after Savoie's story aired on NBC Connecticut last month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) took note. It is now opening a preliminary investigation. NHTSA said it has received 439 complaints that headrests burst open without a crash and 71 of those reports involved injuries.
The NHTSA says its preliminary investigation is currently limited to 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango vehicles. That covers Barbara Savoie in Connecticut, but not Shawn Alger and Laura Baca here in California. However, NHTSA officials say "The preliminary investigation will also examine other Fiat Chrysler automobile models and model years."
We turned to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for comment. An FCA spokesperson said, "We are providing NHTSA with our full cooperation."
In the past, FCA told us its "...vehicles meet or exceed all federal safety requirements. Also, we continually monitor the performance of our vehicles in the field, responding accordingly. Customer safety is paramount at FCA U.S."
Some drivers say a headrest recall is in order. Elizabeth, a Dodge Caravan owner in Mooresville, North Carolina, shared her concerns with Charlotte NBC affiliate WCNC after she first contacted NBC Bay Area.
"This is a serious road hazard," Elizabeth said. "It's like a time bomb, or a loaded gun behind your head."
If you've had a headrest burst open in your vehicle unexpectedly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would like to hear from you. You can file a report here:
NBC Bay Area would also like to hear from you. Please contact us here or by calling 888-996-TIPS.