Do I need a cargo barrier?

Inertial projectiles - cargo down the back - is it really ready to go 100 per cent Stephen King and guillotine you in a crash? Why don’t all wagons and hatches come standard with cargo barriers?

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Let’s talk about the cargo in your SUV - is it waiting patiently to go Lee Harvey Oswald to your JFK if you crash? Here’s a question I got recently from Shayne:

"We are looking to purchase a medium SUV and to me a cargo barrier is a no brainer. Apart from ourselves we have a newborn and a two-year-old to think of.  But even the dealer didn't seem interested in selling us one, and you rarely see them in cars these days.  Are 99 per cent of the world morons for not having them, or am I missing something?" - Shayne

Questions like this tend to attack in waves - here’s another one from a guy named Chris, who clearly had been thinking about this a lot.

"As a father to two children safety is a huge factor in my decision when it comes to the purchase of a new car, so shelling out for the top models is justifiable to get all of the latest safety equipment. I’m considering Mazda CX-9, Hyundai Santa Fe Highlander and Kia Sorento Platinum because they are loaded with active safety aids, however this is where the safety argument comes unraveled. It is clear manufactures focus on marketing vs real safety. Add some groceries, suitcases, or even an umbrella to the rear cargo space and there is a significant safety risk to the occupants, especially the baby in a rear facing baby seat.
"The problem is that in all of these top spec vehicles, and all levels of CX-9, there is no cargo barrier available! There is for lower specs of Santa fe and Sorento, but if you want the pinnacle of safety you also get an amazing panoramic sunroof but you can risk decapitating you family as there is no cargo barrier available!So, why am I ranting about this? I have a genuine concern for my own family’s safety and that of all Australians. I feel that this could be an interesting subject for you to discuss in one of your reviews. Maybe manufactures will take notice and ensure these safety devices are available." - Chris

Firstly - in a rare moment of candour and sincerity - let me say that I applaud and respect the commitment these two guys have demonstrated to the safety of their families.

And I get that there is a rational, logical thought process - as well as a bit of nudging by urban myths - that might point you in the direction of needing a cargo barrier or else: potential decapitation of the family, which certainly has a ring of memorable unpleasantness about it.

I would,, however, humbly submit that you could form this view only if you never studied physics, and never did cursory research into what actually kills people in crashes.


Isaac Newton might protect you more comprehensively than a cargo barrier unless you carry big loads

Isaac Newton might protect you more comprehensively than a cargo barrier unless you carry big loads

A brainy but dead dude named Isaac Newton ranted famously about inertia in 1686. (And he died a virgin, proving yet again that the brain is not the organ that really matters, if you want to get the chicks.) Inertia is essentially what kills you in a crash - the car slows down violently, and you keep going, so you hit it. That’s bad.

It’s inertia that’s responsible for the seemingly forward movement of the dummies into the airbags.

Essentially, everything in the universe keep going in a straight line, all the time, unless external forces act. Malevolent projectiles have a problem. They live in a world that is governed by rules. Therefore, unless they can see the target (ie - your head, or that of a loved one) from where they lie in wait, there’s not going to be that crucial impact.

As you can see, for your average assortment of potentially malevolent domestic payloads - there’s just no opportunity to spring an evil ambush and stomp or slice your head into the afterlife.

You can see that, even in this severe 64km/h Euro NCAP offset frontal crash test, which really occurs on the border of human crash survivability, even at the peak of the crash, there’s really no line of sight opportunity for a malicious projectile sitting on the floor of the cargo bay, to spring into action and work its evil magic on your head.

And even if there were a line of sight, the occupants are all wearing padded armour to the rear - although you might think of it as a seat and a headrest. So there’s that.

If it cannot see you (ie: if there's not a direct line of sight; I know projectiles cannot see...) then it cannot hit you in a crash

If it cannot see you (ie: if there's not a direct line of sight; I know projectiles cannot see...) then it cannot hit you in a crash


This state of affairs is corroborated by the fact that there is little to no evidence that inertial projectiles (loose objects obeying Newton’s 1st law) are a significant cause of injury or death in conventional family passenger vehicle crashes.

A great deal of research is done on this. What kills people overwhelmingly are head, torso and leg injuries caused by the body’s inertia and consequential front and side impacts with hard and/or sharp parts of the car’s interior.

It simply is not the case that inertial projectiles kill or maim the victims of conventional passenger vehicle crashes. This may be because (in part) people are largely shielded to the rear by the seat and the headrest, but it is certainly primarily because the potential projectiles are restrained by the second row of seats because there is no line of sight to the target.

I’ve heard a lot of people make the hypothetical case for cargo barriers relating to family safety, and superficially it does seem perfectly plausible. Unfortunately, for the proponents, there is no evidence that this is a problem out there on the road. I’ve also spoken to many internationally renowned safety experts, and none has ever highlighted this as a real road safety issue. They’ve never said - if we get onto this X lives could be saved tomorrow.

Certainly, heavy, hard, unrestrained items stacked up high in the cargo bay might present a real threat in a crash, but in my view some general groceries and other usual domestic type cargo on the cargo floor would almost certainly not.


Not Chucky: As much as it might be convenient to believe in malignant intent - the behaviour of projectiles is very ordered

Not Chucky: As much as it might be convenient to believe in malignant intent - the behaviour of projectiles is very ordered

If you never studied physics in the manner of navy seal training, please remember that projectiles do not move randomly - they obey strict laws governing their passage. They move, essentially (minor simplification) in a straight line.

No line of sight means no impact. And for this reason I’d be more worried about the iPad in your kid’s hands hitting you in the head, edge-on in a crash (or an unrestrained pet).

So, to me it’s like this: Average family vehicles carrying the groceries and whatnot simply don’t need a cargo barrier. Different story for trucks, vans and utes loaded with tools or whatever - there’s a real case for barriers and other load restraint there.

(Because here there is a direct line of sight to the target, and the items are really heavy.)

If you remain somewhat illogically concerned about this, buy a large bag (think: aircraft checked baggage) and put loose items, the groceries, whatever, in that. It’s definitely not going through the seat back any time soon when you do that.


It’s pretty clear the safest way to store conventional domestic items is:

  • Don’t fill your car up with crap you don’t need to carry. (Why load extra chambers if you’re playing Russian Roulette?)
  • Pack the heavy, hard items, like those evil chickpeas, down low and against the rear seat back.
  • Don’t fill the cargo bay more than about two-thirds of the way up the rear seat back with heavy, hard items.

Finally, if you are an atypical user of the cargo bay and you routinely construct an ersatz Tower of Babel from hard, hefty, you-killing items, then, yeah, a cargo barrier is not a bad idea. As for decapitating the family with the groceries, chris, with all due respect, it’s simply a non-risk.

There’s also options like ballistic netting and some proper load-rated eye bolts that you could have professionally installed. And Milford (the Coca-Cola of cargo barrier dudes here in ‘Straya, mate) have a product called Gear Safe >> which is essentially a bag in four sizes up to 132 litres that allows you to consolidate and restrain a bunch of heavy items without fitting a cargo barrier. So there’s an off-the-shelf solution if you have (as they say) ‘special needs’ or even just remain unconvinced.